from The New Book of Knowledge©

Soccer may be the world's most popular sport. It is played by more than 150 million people in more than 178 countries, and it is estimated that more than 2 billion people now follow the World Cup competition.

Even though no one really knows when the game of soccer was first played, some sort of recreation that involved the kicking and chasing of a round object has existed throughout history. Historians think that soccerlike games were played in ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, and China.

Modern soccer began in England, where the first set of rules was published in 1863 by the London Football Association. This gave the sport a clearly defined set of standards and a name: association football. Somehow, the word soccer was derived from "assoc.," a short form of "association."

Soccer developed very quickly in England, and by 1888 the first professional league had been created. English travelers and settlers spread the game throughout the world. The English spread soccer worldwide, but people in different countries adopted new and different ways to play the game. Today, there are various styles of play depending upon the nation or culture in which the game is played.

There are also different names for soccer in other languages—fútbol in Spanish, calcio in Italian, fussball in German, and so on. Even though there are many names for soccer, it is played with the same rules around the world, often before huge crowds.

Soccer is both a recreational and a competitive sport. Competitive soccer is played on every level—from a junior team of 6-year-olds through high school and college and up to club, professional, and national teams.

Soccer in the United States

There are professional soccer leagues in most countries, including the United States. Soccer has been played in the United States in one form or another for more than 100 years. It is rapidly increasing in popularity, but it is only just becoming one of the major sports.

In 1913 the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) joined the International Federation of Association Football, or FIFA, from its French name, headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland. FIFA now has more members than the United Nations, indicating the worldwide following of the sport. The United States Soccer Federation, which is headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, is responsible for regulating all soccer programs in the United States.

In the United States, soccer's popularity began to grow tremendously in the late 1960's, as many more schools and colleges started to play the game. Soon after the North American Soccer League (NASL) was founded in 1967, soccer became a popular spectator sport. It became even more popular in 1975 when the New York Cosmos hired the Brazilian who was considered the game's best player, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé.

The North American Soccer League ceased operations in 1985. However, professional soccer continues in the United States. For men, the top outdoor league is Major League Soccer. There are also indoor leagues, such as the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) and the World Indoor Soccer League (WISL). Women's professional soccer was represented by the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA), which premiered in 2001. The league closed two years later. But a new league, Women's Professional Soccer (WPS), began play in 2009. Women's amateur soccer is represented in the United States by the W-League.

Growth in Participation

Soccer is one of the fastest-growing participation sports in the United States. The number of people playing soccer grew from about 500,000 in 1973 to more than 17 million in 2002. Twelve million of those players were under the age of 18.

Soccer is expected to continue its rapid growth in the United States. Where money is scarce for school athletic programs, the low cost of fielding a soccer team also makes it a good choice—only shorts, shirts, shoes, shin guards, and a ball and a playing field need to be provided.

The Players and the Field

A soccer team consists of eleven players. There is one goalkeeper and ten other players used as forwards, midfielders, and defenders. The forwards are usually the goal scorers. The defenders try to stop the opposing team from scoring. The midfielders coordinate play between the forwards and defenders. For example, when the defenders get the ball from the opposing team, they often pass the ball to the midfielders, who start the offensive attack.

Other terms besides defender, midfielder, and forward are used to denote players' positions. Defenders are also called fullbacks or backs. Defenders may also be called sweepers or stoppers. Sweepers are the last line of defense before the goalkeeper. Stoppers play just in front of the sweepers. Goalkeepers try to prevent goals from being scored by stopping shots or taking the ball away from opposing players. They can sometimes start an attack by kicking or throwing the ball to a teammate. Midfielders are also called halfbacks or, sometimes, linkmen because they link the defense with the offense. Forwards are also called strikers because they strike for the goal. The central striker is also called the targetman, and the other forwards may be called wingers, since they form the outside wings of the attack.

In the past, certain players who played between the midfielders and the forwards were called inside players. In recent years, as formations have changed, the inside players have moved either forward or backward to become strikers or midfielders.

Players wear cleated, not spiked, shoes with knee-length socks, shorts, and either long- or short-sleeved shirts. All players should also wear shin guards.

Soccer is played with a round ball covered with leather. It must be from 27 to 28 inches (69 to 71 centimeters) in circumference and must weigh from 14 to 16 ounces (397 to 454 grams). The circumference of the ball used in youth soccer is 25 inches (64 centimeters).

The Field

The soccer field is typically from 100 to 130 yards (90 to 120 meters) long and from 50 to 100 yards (46 to 90 meters) wide. Fields used in international matches have slightly different dimensions.

The boundary lines on the long side of the field are called touch lines. Those on the short sides are called goal lines.

The goals stand in the center of the goal lines. Each goal consists of two wooden or metal posts 24 feet (7.3 meters) apart, joined at the top by a crossbar that is 8 feet (2.4 meters) above the ground. A net is usually attached to the back of the goal. The net is helpful because it stops the ball when it goes in the goal. In this way everyone can be sure that the ball has passed between the two posts and under the crossbar to score a goal.

The goal area is a rectangle in front of each goal. It is 20 yards (18 meters) wide and extends 6 yards (5.5 meters) in front of the goal. The goalkeeper cannot be charged in the goal area by an opponent.

The penalty area is 44 yards (40 meters) wide and extends 18 yards (16.5 meters) in front of the goal. The penalty area is important because defenders are seriously penalized if they break certain rules in that area. In such cases, a member of the offensive team gets a kick from the penalty spot 12 yards (11 meters) in front of the goal. Only the goalkeeper can attempt to block the kick.

How the Game Is Played

Before a game starts, the team captains flip a coin to decide which team will kick off. They also choose the goals their teams will defend. The teams change goals at the beginning of the second half. The team that did not kick off to start the game kicks off for the second half.

Teams kick off from the center spot, a point in the middle of the halfway line. Players line up on their own half of the field with three players on the kicking team usually standing close to the ball. Opponents must be at least 10 yards (9 meters) away from the ball. One of the attackers kicks the ball forward to a teammate to start. After each goal, play resumes with a kickoff. The team that is scored against kicks off.

As in basketball or hockey, the object is to score points by putting the ball into the opposing team's goal while preventing the opposing team from scoring. When a player gets the ball into the opposing team's goal, either by kicking it or hitting it with another legal part of the body, the player scores a goal that counts one point. In international, professional, and collegiate play, the game consists of two 45- minute halves with an intermission no more than 15 minutes long. Youth soccer games are shorter, usually two 30- to 40-minute halves. The game is won by the team that scores the most points.

Offensive play tries to advance the ball into opposition territory through team play. This is done by passing the ball from player to player while keeping it from defenders. When in a position to do so, a player kicks or heads the ball (hits the ball with the head) in the direction of the opponent's goal. Defensive players try to clear the ball from their area by intercepting passes and by using other legal methods to stop the team trying to score.

The offensive team's aim is simply to put a player with time and room to spare in a shooting position near the opposing goal. It does not matter whether that player is supposed to be a forward or a defender.

Soccer is an exciting, fast-paced game that requires great physical endurance. On average, a midfielder will run up to 7 miles (11 kilometers) in a 90-minute match. Play rarely stops. Players move up and down the field almost constantly. Play is stopped only when a goal is scored, when a foul occurs, or when a player is seriously injured. Since most rules prohibit players from returning to a game once they have been removed, soccer players often continue to play with injuries.

Ball Control

Ball control is one of the most important elements of soccer. Players may trap the ball (bring it under control) with any part of their body except their hands. Only goalkeepers are allowed to use their hands. After gaining control of the ball, the player may pass it to another player or dribble it downfield. The ball is dribbled (pushed along the ground by the feet of a player) by using the instep, the inside, or the outside of the foot. For a long pass the instep is usually used to kick the ball. The player's head is also used in ball control. Players hit the ball with their foreheads to pass, intercept, and shoot the ball at the goal.

While a player has control of the ball, the player's teammates try to find an open area to receive a pass. The opposing team tries to intercept the ball. In soccer a defensive player is allowed to tackle the ball. This is done by kicking the ball away from the ballhandler.

Rules of the Game

The most basic rule of soccer is that no player except the goalkeeper is allowed to touch the ball with the arms or hands, and goalkeepers may use their arms and hands only within the penalty area.

International rules allow a maximum of two substitutions, and no one who has left the game is allowed to return. In the United States, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) permits five substitutes who are allowed to leave and re-enter the game.

Under international and collegiate soccer rules, one referee and two linesmen officiate at a game. In high school, two referees often are used. The referee acts as the timekeeper and enforces the rules. The main job of the referee is to control the game with the help of the linesmen. The linesmen notify the referee when a team should be awarded a throw-in, a corner kick, or a goal kick and when a player is offside or has committed a foul. It is the referee who makes the final decision in all disputes.

Offsides and Free Kicks

A difficult rule to understand in soccer is the offside rule. A player is offside if the player is nearer or equal to the opponent's goal than the ball is at the time the ball is being played by a teammate. But there are exceptions to this rule. A player is not offside if she or he is in the defending half of the field or is farther from the goal line than two opponents. A player is not offside if the ball was last touched by an opponent or if the player received the ball directly from a goal kick, corner kick, or throw-in.

For violations such as offside, obstruction, and dangerous play, an indirect free kick is given to the opposing team. The player taking the indirect free kick is not allowed to kick the ball directly into the goal. The ball must first be touched by another player before entering the goal.

The opposing team gets a direct free kick if a player kicks, trips, jumps at, violently charges, charges from behind, strikes, holds, or pushes an opponent or intentionally touches the ball with the hands or arms. A goal may be scored on a direct free kick without the ball being touched by another player.

If any direct-free-kick offense is committed by a defending team in its own penalty area, the opposing team is given a penalty kick from the penalty spot, which is 12 yards (11 meters) in front of the goal. Only the player taking the shot and the goalkeeper are allowed inside the penalty area during this shot.

Throw-Ins and Corner Kicks

The ball is out of play when it has completely crossed a goal line or touch line and when the game has been stopped by the referee. When the ball has crossed the touch line, the team that last touched it loses possession. An opposing player puts the ball back into play with a throw-in. The throw must be an overhead, two-handed delivery. As the player releases the ball, both feet must be touching the ground on or outside the touch line. When the ball has crossed the goal line, it is put back into play by either a goal kick or a corner kick, depending on which team last touched the ball. If the defensive team last touched it, a corner kick is taken by the offensive team from the corner on the side on which the ball went out. If the ball was last touched by the offensive team, the defensive team takes a goal kick. The ball is placed on a corner of the goal area within the field and it is kicked from there.

A goal cannot be scored if the ball was thrown or carried in by the hand or arm of a player. A shot scores a goal only if the entire ball crosses the goal line between the goal posts and below the crossbar.

The World Cup

Soccer's highest competitive prize is the World Cup championship. Every four years, the top soccer-playing nations compete for the honor of being called the outstanding soccer-playing country in the world. All nations belonging to the International Federation of Association Football are eligible to compete in qualifying competitions, which determine the teams that will join the host nation and the previous champion to play for the World Cup.

The first World Cup (for men only) was played in 1930 at Montevideo, Uruguay. It has been held every four years since then at a different site, except during World War II (1939-45), when competition was suspended. The women's World Cup made its debut in 1991, and is also held every four years.

Soccer is also included in the Olympic Games. The men's competition was first held in 1900, and women's soccer became an official Olympic sport in 1996.

—Jim Froslid, United States Soccer Federation

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