Distant Cousins: 3 Sports Sharing a Common Ancestor with Association Football

Association football – known as “football” to most and “soccer” to the Americans – is the most-followed sport in the world. There is only one country on our planet that doesn’t have a national football team – the Marshall Islands – and even that has more than a dozen professional teams. Sports involving the kicking of balls were played widely around the world since the dawn of civilization – football as we know it, in turn, was born in the 19th century England, culminating in the creation of the Football Association in 1863. Not everyone agreed with the rules of the game sanctioned by the Association, though – this has led to the emergence of several sports with different rules that emerged over the coming years. These are the ones that are still “alive” and share a common ancestor with the game we all love today.

Gaelic football

Gaelic football is one of the most played sports in Ireland. To an outsider, it may seem like a cross between soccer and rugby – the players run with the ball in their hands but the ball is not oval but spherical. Gaelic football is, in turn, different from both in many other ways as well – the size of the field, the number of players, the size of the ball, to name just a few.

Gaelic football may or may not share a common ancestry with the game played in England at the time – it certainly is similar in enough ways to share at least its earliest ancestry with it. The sport was codified in 1887, in an effort to differentiate it from the “foreign” forms of the sport. It is the only form of football that’s only played on an “amateur” level – the players, coaches, and referees are prohibited from receiving any form of payment for their services.

Australian rules football

Aussie rules football has a lot more in common with rugby than with association football. For one, the ball is oval-shaped, and it can be carried in the players’ hands. Still, they share a common ancestor. Football was a “minor amusement” in Australia in the first half of the 19th century, played only sporadically (whereas cricket was a very popular sport). This is probably the reason why Aussie rules football is usually played on a modified cricket ground. The first Aussie club, the Melbourne Football Club, was born in 1859, and the rules of the sport were sanctioned in the same year. This was perhaps the first major football code, born before that of association football, rugby union, and Gaelic football.


The game of football played at the Rugby School would seem like a fusion of rugby and association football: while the players were allowed to touch the ball with their hands, they were not allowed to run with it in hand toward the opposing goal. Between 1820 and 1830, the innovation allowing running with the ball was introduced, setting the stage for the emergence of what we call Rugby football today. The rules of the game were codified in 1871, soon after the emergence of the FA rules, by the clubs that preferred the Rugby Rules. This led to the emergence of the Rugby Union, and the Rugby League almost 25 years later.

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