To its worldwide following of fans who number in the hundreds of millions, soccer is "the beautiful game." Soccer is the world's most popular sport, the only game is played at an elite competitive level in every country on Earth.

A large measure of soccer's appeal is its simplicity. Played on a large field, with 11 players per side, the object of soccer is straightforward: to direct the ball with either the feet or one's head into the opponent's goal. The rules of the game are equally direct, establishing in the single referee the absolute and final authority for matters on the field. While physical size and speed are useful attributes in a soccer player, another aspect of the popularity of soccer is that anyone can play the game, and while age may diminish a player's speed or ball-handling skills, soccer can be a competitive pursuit at any age.

Soccer has likely been played in one form or another in many cultures over the centuries, as the act of kicking an object is a natural one. Soccer as an organized sport began in England in the mid-1800s, both as a school competition and among workingmen for recreation. The Football Association, the world's oldest governing body for soccer, was formed in England in 1872. The Laws of the Game, as propagated by the Football Association, have remained the rules bedrock on which soccer has enjoyed its worldwide development. The first international play took place among the countries of the British Isles, and by 1900, the game was being played widely throughout Europe.

Soccer enjoys the tradition built in many very prestigious professional leagues, particularly in Europe; the European soccer governing body, UEFA, is a very influential organization in its own right, with over 50 member countries and their national soccer associations. All of the interest in international soccer reaches a crescendo in the glamorous and intense, often super-heated environment created through the quadrennial World Cup, and the over two years of qualifying play downs that precede the selection of the 32-team field. The inter-national game, both at the World Cup as well as in any regional championships such as the European Cup or African Cup, is ultimately conducted in accordance with the rules of the Federation Internationale de Football Associations (FIFA). The governing body of international soccer rivals the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for the claim to being the most powerful sports governing body in the world.

The field on which soccer is played is as simply configured as the game itself. The field, or pitch as it is called in Europe, is a rectangular shape; in international play, the field must measure a minimum of 110 yd to 120 yd in length (100-110 m), with a minimum width of 64 yds to a maximum of 75 yd (70-82 m). Each of the outside boundaries is patrolled by a linesman, who determines whether the ball has gone out of play. These officials also advise the referee as to whether a particular play is offside. The goal is also rectangular, 24 ft wide by 8 ft high (7.3 m by 2.4 m). An 18 yd (16.5 m) penalty area is marked in another rectangle on the field adjacent to the goal; for fouls committed by a defensive player within this area, a penalty kick is awarded and the ball placed for a single penalty shot from a mark 12 yd (11 m) from the goal.

By FIFA rule, international soccer has been played on natural turf surfaces only. Earlier generation artificial surfaces tended to cause the ball to bounce more than was desirable; the plastic turf also posed the significant risk of abrasions to players who slid to make a tackle or goalkeepers making a save. FIFA have authorized the testing of the softer, newer generation artificial surfaces, with a view to integrating these surfaces into FIFA competitions, as FIFA recognizes that natural turf cannot be properly maintained in some climates.

Soccer, like rugby and basketball, is a sport where the successful player must have command of a broad athletic skill set, irrespective of the position played. The player must have a base level of endurance that will permit the athlete to run for a full 90-minute game, with often intense bursts of running and other physical activity interspersed within that period. The goalkeeper is often a tall and very agile athlete, with well-developed hand-eye coordination and the ability to anticipate offensive strategy. The defenders are often the largest players on the field; they must be able to run with the position's speedy forwards, to clear the ball from the defensive zone with either a "header" or a clearing kick, as well as being able to make a strong and accurate pass while under opposing player pressure.

U.S. midfielder Brandi Chastain celebrates her winning penalty kick to defeat China at the 1999 Women's World Cup soccer final.

The midfielder must possess the best all-round skills on a soccer team, capable of breaking up offensive sorties by the opponent, as well as moving forward to join the attack against the opposing goal. The forwards, often given the designation "the striker," have a primary responsibility to carry the attack to the opponent, seeking to create opportunities to score goals. Unlike rugby and American football, the sports that have their origins in soccer, soccer games are typically low scoring. A striker who can convert the relatively few chances to score is a valuable soccer commodity.

One of the great attractions of soccer is that no matter how sublimely talented a player may be, teams are only successful when they are working in unison. Team concepts such as the spacing of the players and the determination with which they move the ball into an attacking position as a team will usually trump an outstanding individual player who attempts to monopolize the ball.

Soccer is a sport where the individual technical components can be broken down into discrete parts for training and improvement. Those basic areas are dribbling, in which the control of the ball by the individual player is a precondition to success in a dynamic 11-player team concept. Dribbling a soccer ball is all of the techniques used to control the ball when it is at the feet of a player, both while the player is stationary and when the player is moving with the ball. Soccer demands that a skilled player be able to make a multitude of different passes, all of which are dictated by the circumstances with which the player is faced. Soccer passes range from delicate touches of the ball that merely change its direction to a teammate, to huge 60 yd (55 m) kicks to reach a teammate attempting to outrun the opposing defense. Receiving a pass can be required in a similar variety of circumstances from almost any place on the field; the key aspect to receiving a pass is the control of the ball with the feet, legs, torso, or head.

Shooting the soccer ball is elevated to an art form in a game where scoring chances are relatively few. Kicks directed at the goal are rarely taken from a stationary position; offensive players are often on the move, and they are required to make instantaneous decisions concerning both the direction and the speed of the intended kick. The header is an essential skill for every player on a soccer field. Heading the ball is used to clear the ball away from a player's own goal to control and to maintain possession of the ball through the midfield, and to direct the ball, often in remarkable feats of agility and coordination, into the opposing goal. When the ball is kicked out of bounds by a player, the opposing team is permitted to throw the ball onto the field of play. The throw must be made with both feet on the ground and an overhead motion.

The corner kick is when the ball is kicked out of bounds behind the goal line by the defensive team, and the attacking team is awarded a corner kick, taken from the corner of the field and directed into the goal area to create an offensive chance for the attackers, either as a header or a kick. The corner kick is usually struck by the player to create spin on the ball, causing the ball to bend. All high-level teams attempt to run a set play from a corner kick, often with an offensive player running into the goal area as the ball is delivered by the kicker.

The penalty kick is an important feature of soccer, both as an award for a foul committed in the goal area during the game, and as the tie-breaking device at the end of regulation play. Soccer was the first major sport to provide for a series of penalty shots as its tie breaker, as opposed to the continued play of the game until a sudden death goal was scored (Olympic ice hockey now has a penalty shot tie breaker).

Like basketball, soccer is nominally a non-contact game as well as an extremely physical sport. "Marking" is the well-known European term for the actions of a defender to keep an opposing forward for either getting free to take a pass or to deliver a shot if the forward received the ball. The closer the action comes to the goal, the more prominent the battles for physical position between forwards and defense. In international soccer, the referee often will not call an obvious foul if there was no advantage gained to the player in question.

Speed and anticipation are essential to both control the defensive end of the field and to make attacks on the opponent.

Technical skill will usually take a team a great way toward success. The pinnacles of the game are reached by teams that play with a particular and well-defined style. Brazil has dominated World Cup play since the 1950s with a quick, highly entertaining brand of soccer, while countries such as France and Germany have been successful with a more measured and deliberate approach. Decisions regarding the style of play to be employed are often a combination of philosophy and athleticism.

While the world market for soccer is immense and continually growing, North America represented in many ways an unassailable fortress against which soccer could not secure a foothold. The North American Soccer League flourished in a few cities in the early 1970s, when the league secured the star power of one of the game's legendary players, the Brazilian Pelé. Soccer could never penetrate the professional sports consciousness on the North American continent, and the interest in professional soccer appeared to fade. A vibrant youth soccer movement that began in the 1980s, coupled with both the success of the American women's national team and the securing of a place in the 2006 World Cup by the American men's team, have created a positive image for the sport. In Canada, youth soccer registrations now outnumber those for ice hockey, the national game.

SEE ALSO FIFA: World Cup Soccer; Musculoskeletal injuries; Soccer injuries; Soccer: (U.S.) Strength and training exercises.