During a schoolyard soccer game in Tokyo, Japan, a goalie jumps and extends his arms to try and prevent the ball from hitting a cement wall.
Soccer pitches come in many forms, from back alleys to beaches, green portside fields to billion-dollar stadiums. Regardless of the setting, the makings of the game are the same: find a ball—or anything round—split into teams, kick it past a marker or into a goal, celebrate and cheer.
The sport—called soccer, football, or futbol depending on where it’s being played—is the world’s most popular, uniting novice players, professional athletes, and super-fans. Though fans follow their favorite teams year-round, every four years the world comes together for a month to watch an international tournament of this globally revered game.
The FIFA World Cup began in Uruguay in 1930 with 13 teams vying for its championship title. Today’s Cup has grown far beyond that small competition, and 32 countries now play to determine which national team will rise to the top. Despite the political turmoil off the field, the World Cup remains beloved by billions. In fact, over three billion tuned in for the 2014 competition, demonstrating why the sport is often called “the people’s game.”
Apart from its athletic impact, soccer’s influence is felt far beyond the field. It's used as a tool for economic development, gender equality, and health education—translating the joy of the game into a catalyst for social change and community growth.
To celebrate this cherished global sport, we’ve dug deep into the National Geographic archives and found timeless photos of people around the world enjoying the game.
Lauren O'Brien is a digital news writer at National Geographic, covering topics related to culture and exploration.