How Soccer Has Changed: Game-Changers

The sport of soccer dates back over 2,000 years. FIFA’s “History of Football” chronicles documents that an early form of the game was played in China in the second and third centuries BC. Further evidence of similar games has been found throughout history all across the world. However, it wasn’t until 1848 that the official “Cambridge Rules” were established.

It was from that moment that the game began to develop into the soccer of today. As interesting as it may be to learn about the sport’s origins, how soccer has changed in its contemporary form is and continues to be, a far more fascinating story.

How has soccer changed?

Soccer has changed in countless ways over the years; from how the game is played on the field, to how it’s handled off the field, to how fans have become intertwined with their teams and it’s players. There are three key factors that are at the core of all major developments within the game:

  1. Technology
  2. Media
  3. Social Media
  4. Tactical Development
  5. Style of Play

A once simple game, soccer has transcended into a global phenomenon that involves much more than 11 v 11 on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Why has this come to be? How has soccer changed since it’s inception all those years ago? Let’s take a look.

A timeline of the history of soccer | Image courtesy of liveaboutdotcom.

How have soccer rules changed over time?

Soccer rules have changed significantly over time. Here are some of the changes you might not have heard about:

  • Goal kicks were introduced in 1869.
  • Crossbars were only added to goalposts in 1875!
  • Penalty kicks were first introduced in 1891.
  • The modern offside rule was implemented in 1990.
  • The pass back rule, that goalies are not permitted to touch the ball with their hands following a deliberate pass to them, was introduced in 1992.
  • Goal-line technology was introduced in 2013.
  • VAR was debuted in 2017.

As with all industries, soccer has experienced much change due to technology: both in-game and externally.


watching soccer on TV

When soccer was first being played, there were no TVs. The first-ever televised soccer game was broadcast by the BBC on September 16th, 1937. Over 80 years later, it’s the most viewed sport on the planet. Over 3.5 billion people watched the 2018 World Cup in Russia. That’s almost half the population of Earth! Sports broadcasters are now airing more matches than ever before. For the 2019 – 2022 cycle, the Premier League sold its broadcasting rights for a record $11.7 billion.

The broadcasting structure for Major League Soccer differs from the European game. The programing focus is more localized and varies from franchise-to-franchise. However, the MLS is reported to be gathering all local and national media resources to make a push for a large broadcasting deal in 2022. The goal is to maximize exposure to the league as a whole, drawing in eyes from every corner of the US market.

As MLS vice-president of Media, Seth Bacon told Sports Business Journal:We are constantly thinking about our media rights strategy, and media rights and content are the most significant assets that we and any other league have”. The TV is opening up more and more people to the game every day.

Social Media

social media

Social Media has fundamentally changed the relationship between fans and players. It provides a direct communication link unlike any technology in history. A shift in social trends toward mobile devices has forced teams, broadcasters, and players to turn their focus to social media and all things mobile.

Social media has become the first point of communication and the most important and influential marketing tool available to soccer franchises. Not only does social media allow soccer organizations to share content with their followers, but it also encourages engagement with fans and helps build valuable relationships. Each platform serves a different purpose and has changed the sport in a different manner. 


Instagram has become a modern player’s voice. It’s the most personable social media platform available and gives followers access to their on-field heroes. Fans see Instagram, more than any other social platform as the ideal way to interact with players and teams.

Nielsen Sports reported that Manchester United achieved almost 27,000 interactions (comments, likes, shares, etc.) per 1,000 Instagram fans, compared to 4,229 interactions per 1,000 Facebook fans.

It is no surprise that Instagram is the fastest growing social media platform out there for soccer brands and organizations. 3 out of the top 10 most-followed Instagram accounts are soccer players, with one of those players being the most followed Instagram account. Can you guess who they are?

10. Neymar

Neymar Instagram

9. Messi

Messi Instagram

1. Cristiano Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo Instagram

An individual player’s sponsorship deals are heavily reliant on their social media presence. A player’s value to a sponsor has got as much to do with their off-field game than their on-field one. In the modern era, it is very rare to come across a soccer player with no social media, particularly Instagram.

Players are expected to plug their sponsors and reflect on every single game with regularity. Instagram and soccer players now go hand-in-hand. This gives players a lot of power over their clubs.

A player’s image rights and social media presence have a strong influence on big-money transfers. There has been a clear shift in the balance of power between franchises and players.


If Instagram is the leading voice for players, Twitter is most definitely the fans’ voice. It provides the landscape for fan opinion and discussion and is home to millions of debates and arguments about soccer. Twitter has not only changed the game for fans, but it’s also become one of the major news sources in soccer.

Transfer news and rumors are a constant on Twitter, with many accounts dedicated solely to bringing you the ‘inside scoop’ on off-season trades. Journalists regularly break exclusive stories on Twitter. Teams use it release starting XI’s ahead of every game. Sports broadcasters have bought the rights to upload match highlights as they happen on social platforms.

Twitter has become the go-to source for live sports content. If a broadcaster isn’t posting a highlight they may #LiveTweet the event, constantly keeping their followers updated. Tuning in to the news or sports telecasts for soccer updates is a thing of the past. Fans now need updates immediately.


Facebook is the number 1 social media channel in the world and, in turn, is the biggest channel for soccer teams and players. Although the platform retains a lot of importance and value, statistics are showing that its growth has plateaued and it is no longer the favored place for the consumption of soccer content. 

Facebook has changed the game in the sense that it was the first major social media platform for soccer content. However, the accessibility provided by the likes of Instagram and Twitter makes them the future players in the social media market.

Team Fans Growth Fans Growth Fans Growth Fans Growth
Manchester United 73.3M -0.6% 18.6M 12.1% 25.3M 25.4% 1.3M 163.3%
Liverpool 32.4M 6.4% 10.9M 15.6% 11.4M 116.9% 1.8M 137.6%
Machester City 36.7M 26.3% 6.6M 17.2% 9.8M 64.2% 1.6M 45.8%

Table outlining the social media numbers and growth % of the EPL’s biggest 3 teams | Info. courtesy of The Drum.

Soccer’s Growth and Exposure

The commercial value of social media is paramount in today’s game. Strategies are essential to ensure that a player or franchise is getting the necessary exposure. It opens up a lot of opportunities but also creates a vulnerability and provides a platform for negativity.

There is no hiding place for soccer players today. Many are subject to scathing criticism and often harmful abuse on social media. For its many positive effects on the sport, social media has a downside.

Although it does not have a direct influence on what happens on the field, social media has a firm stronghold on almost all things off the field. It controls how the sport is consumed as a whole. It generates millions of dollars but is it beginning to negatively affect the purity of the game?


A Video-Assisted-Referee is an external official who reviews decisions made by the in-game referee through the use of video. V.A.R and the in-game referee communicate live via headset.

assistant referee

Since its introduction to a worldwide audience in 2018, there has been no escaping V.A.R. It has had a say in the two biggest cup finals in world soccer since then: the World Cup Final in 2018, and the Uefa Champions League Final in 2019. V.A.R also contributed to the change of the handball rule earlier this year.

Despite having a huge impact on the sport, V.A.R hasn’t had a very warm welcome to the game. Judgments made by V.A.R are still regularly disputed by players, coaches, pundits, and fans. Decisions in games are not necessarily black and white and will always draw debate.

Closely examining in-game events magnifies this and puts referee calls under intense scrutiny. For many, V.A.R has brought about too much negative change and hasn’t improved the game. It slows the game down and dampens the atmosphere. Some also believe that it has exposed issues with the rules themselves.

The counter-argument acknowledges that in spite of its teething problems, V.A.R  is a step in the right direction regarding the use of technology in sport. It will further develop and help eliminate human-error (for the most part), making for a more even playing field. Get used to it folks, V.A.R has changed the game and it is here to stay!

Sports Science

Image result for sport science

Sports science plays a major role in 21st-century soccer. Player diets, gym work, out straining sessions, and recovery activities are carefully measured and analyzed. At the highest level, much of team analysis is data-driven. Wearable technology is used to track player work-rate, distance covered and types of movements carried out in games and training.

These upper body compression vests contain state of the art athletic instruments used to gather data on every movement that a player makes.

This data can then be used to analyze players’ output and performance. It can also be used as a guide for recovery to ensure that injury preventative measures are being taken. A huge emphasis is now placed on recovery in the modern game.

Players undergo individual and group recovery sessions designed specifically to counteract the physical punishment that their bodies endure. Ice-baths, cryotherapy, massages, and physical therapy sessions are taken regularly by players.

Sleep plays a massive part in the recovery process. Many professionals will have their sleep monitored by coaches and will be directed to designated ‘sleeping zones’ on the training grounds for any added rest that is needed.

The influence of sports science has resulted in players being the fittest that they’ve ever been. Even compared to 20 years ago, the modern pro’s work rate and fitness level are far superior.

Tactics and Style of Play

Throughout the history of soccer, we have witnessed eras of dominance by different teams and playing styles. Tactics, formations, and playing styles are perhaps the aspects of soccer that have changed most over time.

1870 – 1930

In the early days (the 1870s), when the rules of the game differed to today, teams set out in wildly attacking formations. It would be a regular occurrence for teams to play in a 2-2-6 or 1-2-7 shape! Passing was not the main feature of the game.

Teams would march forward in a swan-like formation. Players would dribble at the opposition with their teammates in support, collecting loose balls. This trend continued throughout the next number of decades.

The 1950s

The 1950s saw the Hungarian national team make some of the most influential tactical developments in world football at the time. In a historic game vs England, Hungary played a deep-lying midfield player, who partnered up with a central defender They then pushed on 2 other defenders into attacking full-back positions (much like we see in today’s game).

Although they still deployed 4 strikers, they were constantly on the move in search of space to create meaningful attacks. This led to a lot of goals. Hungary went on to beat England 6-3 at Wembley that day, in front of 100,000 fans.

England vs Hungary, 3-6, 1953.

The 1960s

Brazil, between 1958 and 1970, were the first team to successfully operate with a 4 man backline. They played with 2 central defenders and 2 attacking full-backs, a tactic that has remained a staple in the game ever since. This gave them a solid defensive foundation and allowed for the likes of Pele to reak havoc on their opposition.

The 1970s

The antidote to this Brazilian dominance was forged in the Netherlands. In the 1970s, “Total Football” was birthed, led by Dutch talisman, Johan Cruyff. This style of play has been the most significant and influential tactical evolution in the history of soccer.

Rinus Michel’s genius system involved constant movement and interchanging of positions by all outfield players. It was the first glimpse the world got of fluid soccer. To the untrained eye, it often looked like players were wandering about the pitch as they pleased.

But, in reality, they were operating in a precise footballing system and philosophy. This style created the framework for Pep Guardiola’s masterful Barcelona, Bayern, and Manchester City teams of the modern era.

The 1980s

The famous “Catenaccio” (door bolt), was a heavily defensive tactic first adopted in Italy in the 1960s. However, it was used most successfully in the ‘80s as a counterploy to the aforementioned Dutch philosophy.

Although this formation had flaws, particularly when the team was in possession, the style of play laid the foundations for many great Italian teams. Since then, we have seen several decades of Italian powerhouses enduring tremendous success in Europe. It was this type of tactical formation that led to Italy’s World Cup triumph in 1982

The 2010s

The next period of dominance by one particular style arrived around 2008, with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. This approach naturally bled into the Spanish national team, leading to a World Cup win in 2010 and back to back European Championships in 2008 and 2012.

Like the “Total Football” approach, the “Tiki Taka” style of play, adopted by the Barcelona and the Spanish national team of this era, involved fluid football. Large amounts of possession and intense high pressing off the ball were core features of the gameplan. 

Despite Guardiola’s departure from Barca in 2012, they have continued to be a dominant force in world football. Since 2008, they’ve been almost untouchable domestically, picking up 8 La Liga titles, 6 Copa Del Reys, and 6 Spanish Super Cups in 11 seasons.  They have also lifted the Uefa Champions League trophy 3 times in that period.

Pep Guardiola and players

The success of both these teams has impacted soccer on a global scale. Teams all across the world are implementing Barcelona training methods at the grassroots level. We now see low tier teams adopting a possession and pressing approach. Long balls are becoming a rarity in modern soccer.

The next great style of play

What tactical trend is in the pipeline for future generations? Sportswriter, Jonathan Wilson believes that the cyclical nature of the game is already being demonstrated in the form of fast-paced counter-attacking teams. Liverpool is an obvious example of this.

Although Klopp’s side shares certain qualities with a Pep Guardiola type team, their doggedness, ruggedness, and directness set them apart somewhat. If Wilson is correct, we may be in for an exciting new wave of high octane soccer over the coming seasons!

The Future of Soccer

We’ve come a long way since the 1-2-7 formations of teams in the 1800s. The modern game is now acutely tactical and played under scientific guidance by the fittest of athletes.

Not only this, but the beautiful game is also now observed and followed on a huge array of platforms. There are more eyes on the sport than ever before.

This benefits players and teams on a monetary level but it also creates added pressure. There is no escaping the bright lights! Technology continues to shape the world that we live in. What does the future hold for soccer in this regard? I guess we’ll have to wait and see. For more useful guides, see the articles below or visit our home page.

How have soccer balls changed? Soccer balls have slowly developed over time from pig bladders and skulls to aerodynamic high performing balls of today. The modern ball is a standardized size 5.

How have cleats changed? Cleats were originally very heavy and leatherbound. The cleat progressed to a less heavy shoe, resilient to wear and tear but less prone to absorbing moisture. Over time, cleats further developed in this manner. The modern cleat is extremely lightweight and is designed for control, comfort and speed.

How have uniforms changed? Uniforms have changed significantly over the years also. ‘Jerseys’ from olden days were heavy material that offered little ventilation and was prone to soaking in a huge amount of moisture. Although fashion and style have influenced how uniforms looked over the years, the modern-day soccer jersey contains technology that absorbs sweat and moisture, regulates temperature and helps maximize performance.

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