In researching the history of football and learning about the development of Rugby, Soccer and Australian Rules football, a large question has developed in my mind. What are the reasons that Soccer has been more successful than other codes of football in spreading around the world?
Rugby developed the original rules to their game in 1845. There was then a set of rules developed called the Cambridge rules in 1848 that was a mixture of the games of Rugby and Soccer. In 1863 an attempt was made to standardise the rules of football. During this process there was a falling out. Association Football came out of the 1863 talks and the Rugby people went their own way. They continued to play with their 1845 rules until they established their Rugby Union in 1871 and then established the Laws of Rugby.
Australian Rules football had already established their rules by 1859. The first clubs Melbourne and Geelong were established in 1859 and Adelaide in 1860.
The early expansion of Rugby and Soccer was similar. Rugby had their first international match against Scotland in 1871, Soccer had their first international match against Scotland in 1872.
The Scottish FA established themselves in 1873, the Welsh in 1875, and the Irish in 1880. Rugby was a little earlier in its expansion. Sydney University in Australia established a club in 1864, Queens University in Ireland in 1869, Nelson Football Club in New Zealand in 1870, Le Havre France in 1872, Heidelberg Germany in 1872. The Scottish Rugby Union was formed in 1873, the same year as the Scottish FA. By 1874 Rugby had spread to USA, Canada and South Africa. If Rugby spread faster than Soccer, then why did Soccer spread more successfully in the long run?
Perhaps the first reason is that Soccer established a formal competition before Rugby did. Various Rugby clubs played each other for fun but did not have established leagues. The FA established the FA cup in 1871 with 50 teams; a knock out tournament. The next big development was in 1885 when Soccer turned professional, something which Rugby Union was loathed to do and caused their split with Rugby League in 1895. By 1895, the Rugby game that had spread around the world was Union not League. Rugby Union insisted on their amateur status for the next 100 years until it turned professional in 1995.
Soccer established their League Championship in 1888 as a response to the development on professionalism. So Soccer already had a professional league in 1888, while Rugby was still an amateur game without leagues, even though it was still played in more parts of the world at the time.
Australian football had their first leagues in 1877, both the South Australian Football Association (12 teams) and the Victorian Football Association (8 teams) started official competition that year. The Victorian Football League established itself as professional in 1897 when it split from the Victorian Football Association. Australian Football spread to New Zealand in the 1860s when there was a gold rush in the Otago region. By the 1880s the game was officially called Australasian football. There were 115 Australasian football clubs in New Zealand in 1901, with New Zealand a member of the Australasian Football Council. In 1908 New Zealand competed in the Jubilee Australasian Football Carnival in Melbourne. But the first world war ravaged the ranks of New Zealand Australasian Football players. After the war the game never really recovered. As Rugby was more popular, Australasian Football had died out in the 1930s, but was reintroduced there in the 1970s. Australian Football did not spread anywhere else in the early years of the game, although some argue that it had an influence on Gaelic Football in Ireland. The reason that Australian football did not spread very far is that Australia was so far from the rest of the world. Soccer spread throughout Europe and the British empire as Britain was a world power. Australia was just a collection of colonies at the end of the world.
The truth is that Soccer organised itself into leagues and professionalism a lot earlier than Rugby did. The games of Rugby and Soccer spread at similar rates in the early years. A Rugby Union was formed in Argentina in 1899 just six years after an FA was formed there. FIFA established itself in 1904 with 7 national members (with the noted absence of England). FIFA did not spread the game as such in the early years. The IRB (International Rugby Board, established in 1886), did not spread the game of Rugby either. Both games spread naturally as cultural ideas spread across borders. But it seems that where ever soccer spread it did so upon a larger base of organisation in England.
Rugby's decision to remain amateur statues most likely harmed its popularity around the world. While soccer players would not lose money for taking time off work and in later decades they could make a living from the game, Rugby players could not do so for another 100 years or so. It is true that the Rugby League in northern England was professional, just as Australian Football was, but Rugby League was not the game that spread around the world.
This has given soccer a head start of 100 years over Rugby. Soccer has had a similar break over Australian football, due to Australia's isolation. But Rugby is a thriving international professional sport today. Italy recently joined the six nations Rugby tournament in Europe in 2000. Argentina is poised to join the Southern Hemisphere tournament against South Africa, Australia and New Zealand within the next few years. Rugby is expanding at a fast rate and is even experiencing a revival in Canada and the USA.