Football (soccer) is the world’s most popular sport, played in more countries than any other. The World Cup of football, the quadrennial competition played in the even year between Olympics (last in 2018), is considered by some as the most watched single sporting event on the planet, possibly surpassing even the Olympic Games. The sport is governed internationally by the Fédération internationale de football association (FIFA), which was formed on 21 May 1904 in Paris, with seven founding members: Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Spain (represented by Madrid Football Club), Sweden, and Switzerland. As of 2022 FIFA has 211 members.
The origins of football are vague. The Greeks played a game that loosely resembled its modern counterpart, as did the Romans. By the 14th century it was so popular in England that King Edward II issued a proclamation on 13 April 1314, forbidding the game “forasmuch as there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls from which many evils might arise which God forbid; we commend and forbid, on behalf of the King, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city of the future.” In 1349, Edward III objected to the game because it prevented the practice of archery, necessary for the military strength of the country. Banning the game had little effect, however, as similar edicts had to be issued in 1389 (Richard II), 1401 (Henry IV), 1436 (Henry VIII), 1457 (James II), and again in 1491.
Gradually, despite attempts to ban it, football spread throughout the world, becoming popular almost everywhere, with the United States being a notable exception. Football was first contested at the 1900 and 1904 Olympics. The sport has been played at every Olympics since, with the exception of 1932 in Los Angeles.
The World Cup began in 1930 and brings together the world’s top professional players. Olympic eligibility has always been problematic. After World War II, Eastern European countries stated that they had no true professionals, although their players were state supported. Thus, they often entered similar teams in both the World Cup and the Olympics. Eastern Europeans were dominant in Olympic football from the 1950s until the fall of Communism in the early 1990s. Recently, eligibility rules have changed, as countries are allowed to use some of their professional players who have competed in the World Cup. Currently, professional players may compete at the Olympics, providing they are not more than 23 years old, although each team is allowed three exceptions to the age rule. There is some sentiment among International Olympic Committee (IOC) members to change this and allow all professionals to compete.
Football (soccer) for women has become more popular, with the first women’s World Cup being contested in 1991. Women’s football appeared on the Olympic Program for the first time in 1996. Despite football not being the most popular sport in the United States, their women’s football team leads the Olympic medal count, with six medals and four Olympic titles. In the men’s competition, two nations – Hungary and Great Britain – have won three tournaments each, but Brazil has won the most medals overall, with seven.
Twelve male footballers have won two gold medals at the Olympic tournament, but only Hungarian Dezső Novák managed to add one other medal (a bronze) to his two Olympic titles. Something similar happens in the women’s side: four players have won three gold medals (all representing the USA), but only Christie Pearce-Rampone won one other medal (a silver), finishing her Olympic career with a total of four medals.
Presidents of the Fédération internationale de football association:
- Robert Guérin (FRA, 1904-1906)
- Daniel Burley Woolfall (GBR, 1906-1918)
- Carl Anton Hirschman (NED, 1918-1920 as acting president)
- Jules Rimet (FRA, 1920-1921 as acting president and 1921-1954)
- Rodolphe Seeldrayers (BEL, 1954-1955)
- Arthur Drewry (GBR, 1955-1956 as acting president and 1956-1961)
- Ernst Thommen (SUI, 1961 as acting president)
- Stanley Rous (GBR, 1961-1974)
- João Havelange (BRA, 1974-1998)
- Sepp Blatter (SUI, 1998-2015)
- Issa Hayatou (CMR, 2015-2016 as acting president)
- Gianni Infantino (ITA, 2016-present)