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Evidence from many ancient societies—Chinese, Greek, Maya, and Egyptian—reveals that kicking games were played in those cultures. The modern game of soccer began in the 19th century in England, when a variety of football games developed, all of which involved both handling and kicking the ball. The first laws of the modern game were supposedly drafted in 1862 by J. C. Thring of the Uppingham School. At a meeting of the London Football Association (FA) in 1863, the game of football was split into rugby football (the parent sport of American football), which permitted handling and carrying the ball, and association football, or soccer, which banned the use of the hands.

At first soccer was played mostly in private schools and universities, but before long, people of the working classes picked up the sport. The FA Cup, a tournament first organized in 1871, sparked the rapid spread of soccer in England. (The tournament, which is still played, climaxes with the annual Cup Final at Wembley Stadium in London.) In 1885 the FA recognized the legitimacy of professional players, and regular league play started in England in 1888. An 1872 game in Glasgow, Scotland, between an English all-star team and its Scottish counterpart marked the beginning of international play.

Soccer's global spread began in the late 1800s, when British traders, sailors, and workers carried the sport all over the world. Germans, Italians, and Austrians were eager converts in Europe, while Argentines, Uruguayans, and Brazilians took quickly to the sport in South America. FIFA was formed in 1904. By 1930 professional leagues were operating in many countries, and that year FIFA organized the first World Cup.

One nation that long resisted soccer's appeal was the United States. Soccer was played, mostly among immigrants, but it was not until the 1970s that a national professional league gained some popularity. The North American Soccer League (NASL), founded in 1968, brought Brazilian star Pelé to the United States, and by 1980 the league had 24 teams. The NASL suffered financially, and in 1984 it went out of business. However, the league left a legacy of growing American involvement in the sport at youth level. By the 1990s soccer was the fastest-growing college and high school sport in the United States.

The growing number of players in the United States attracted sponsorship for the sport, and faith in its future was recognized by FIFA when it granted the USSF the right to organize the 1994 World Cup. The event proved to be a great success, attracting nearly 3.6 million attendees over the course of its 52 games.