A lot has been written on this subject and the question has never been definitely determined.
The problem is how to define popular. Analysts have based their assessments on various criteria such as most watched, most played, most talked about, most revenue-generating, largest television audience, number of stadia and facilities worldwide, tournaments held and merchandise sold. Because so many criteria have been used numerous lists of the most popular sports have been published. However the problem is made easier by the fact that soccer is often on top no matter what the criteria used.
A survey in 2001 by the International Football Federation (FIFA) shows that more than 240 million people play the sport in over 200 countries across the globe.
Soccer is older than most other games. Its origin goes back 3000 years to ancient China where a game was played with a ball of animal skins stuffed with hair or feathers which was kicked between poles 10 meters high and used for military training. Evidence from other ancient societies Greek, Mayan, and Egyptian show that kicking games like soccer were played in those cultures. The modern game as we know it began in 19th century England and the London Football Association was started in 1863 which established the first set of rules.
Soccer spread very easily. It began in a country known for its culture and systems and for ownership of an empire and it was easily exportable.
Today, soccer is the highest paying professional team sport . The prize money for winning the 2010 World Cup was $30 million (World’s Most Popular Sport- Most Popular Sports.net). The World Cup is the most widely viewed sporting event; 715.1 million people watched the final of the 2006 World Cup in Germany (The Real Truth: World Cup: Why Soccer Is So Popular Around The World by Cliff Potter, July 10, 2010).
The game is played in a team format and each team has 11 players. The idea is that a team tries to score goals by kicking the ball between the goalposts of the opponent through a combination of passing and dribbling. Pushing, shoving or defending by causing opponents to fall is a foul. In the end the team who scores more goals wins.
Soccer is very popular because it has certain attractions that appeal to both men and women, young and old:
First, it’s simplicity is appealing. All you need to play is a ball. There are no money barriers and it can be played on any surface, on the neighbourhood street, the beach or in the park. It offers hope to kids particularly in developing countries to use as a stepping stone to a better life. They can play in a sport their heroes play which increases the game’s popularity.
Second, soccer is a team sport. As much as 22 people can play in one game. It helps to promote team spirit and unite people around a common purpose.
Soccer also creates team rivalries and passion. Soccer has some of the most intense international rivalries such as between Argentina and Brasil, England and Germany and the US and Mexico, and intense Derbies such as between Boca Juniors and RiverPlate in Argentina, Manchester City and Manchester United in England, and Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain.
Third, soccer stimulates national pride. It’s a dream to play for your country and people take more pride in their country when the national team succeeds. For example in Colombia when the national team plays both sides in the civil war lay down arms for 90 minutes and cheer on their team. On the other hand this pride can be taken to the other extreme so in 1969 El Salvador and Honduras went to war over a soccer game (called the soccer war).
Fourth, few countries have another viable sport to rival soccer.
Lastly, soccer is a good investment if you can get a team that goes far. That’s why $5 billion are spent by European clubs to buy the best talent available (Why Is Soccer Not Popular In The US? By Steve McCarthy, March 23, 2009). The purpose is to win trophies which in turn brings in big prize money.
There are different types of soccer i.e. futsal or indoor soccer and beach soccer which help to broaden its appeal. And there is women’s soccer which has expanded since the 1990’s and also has World Cup competitions.
It is also interesting to mention that in most lists of the most popular sports cricket often ranks second. This is surprising since it is only played in the British Commonwealth countries mainly, Australia, England, New Zealand, West Indies, India and Pakistan.
A lot has been written on the reasons why soccer has not become more popular in the US. In my opinion American sports fans are already preoccupied with their own sports like baseball, basketball and American football so there is no more room for another competing sport.
Despite the success of soccer as a world sport it has not been without its problems:
In recent years FIFA has been hit by allegations of bribery, corruption scandals and resignations. The most notable are allegations against some top officials for wrongdoing during World Cup 2018 and 2022 bidding campaigns.
Secondly, soccer has been taken over by commercialization. Recently there has been an inflow of money from rich businessmen in East Europe, America and the Middle East buying up top clubs and top players. The desire to win and make money has become the main objective with the attendant problems associated with the use of performance enhancement drugs.
Third, Europol (a European law enforcement agency) recently found evidence of match-fixing in more than 380 matches including the Champions League and World Cup qualifiers between 2008 and 2011. Over 300 more matches are under investigation, most from outside Europe.
Lastly, the good name of soccer is increasingly being damaged by racism and racial abuse between players or from fans directed at players.
Added to this is the long standing problem of soccer violence not only between rival fans but last week festivities by Paris St.Germain fans in Paris celebrating their team’s triumph in the league was marred by outbursts of violence.
In conclusion, soccer has come a long way since it was first invented and found to provide much entertainment for the millions of fans around the world. But the essence of the game is different from those days. Today the game has become big business . It’s losing its authenticity and eventually may lose its popularity. Then soccer will no longer be “King”.