The story behind soccer

Simple yet elegant, soccer is a game that is hugely popular the world over - viewed by millions of spectators and rabid fans and played by millions of others in leagues or pick-up games at the park. All one needs is a few players, a ball, and something approximating a goal. Played in dusty deserts or grassy fields, soccer (or football or fútbol, as it's known to most of the world) is a sport for the masses.

While activities focused on kicking a ball have been around for centuries, the "laws" of association football were first drafted and published in England in 1863. Now, players can follow the 17 official "Laws of the Game" or they can have fun and get an excellent whole-body workout by just passing, kicking, sprinting, bounding around the "pitch" (the way in-the-know footballers refer to the field), and maybe occasionally scoring a GOOOAAALLL!! Soccer is a sport that can be adapted to anyone's level of ability or stamina, so it's a great physical fitness option for anyone.

The benefits of soccer

  • Cardio gains: If you play soccer regularly, you're spending a good amount of time running, sprinting, and jumping, not to mention you're doing a lot of shifting between these different activities. Chances are, you'll work up to your target heart rate and reap cardiovascular benefits, including improved blood pressure, increased endurance, and a stronger heart.
  • Add muscle, lose fat: That same shifting - between running, walking, sprinting, jumping, falling to the ground, and rebounding back - can be beneficial, too. As opposed to an activity like jogging, where you repeat a motion over and over, switching rapidly from one action to the other engages all of the fibres of your muscles. And it's not just the muscles of your legs that get the workout in a soccer match. By doing this kind of physical work regularly, you're more likely to gain muscle mass and burn fat.
  • Build bone: In soccer, the running around that you do can be considered as a type of weight-bearing exercise, which can boost your bone strength. Children playing soccer can also increase bone density.
  • Fun fitness: It's easy to lose yourself in a game of soccer. You're likely to forget all about the effort your body is making and focus on the game instead of the pain. Researchers at the University of Copenhagen compared feedback from two groups of people, where one group played soccer while the other group jogged. Though they ran at roughly the same speed as the soccer players, the joggers always characterized their activity as "hard," an opinion not shared by those playing soccer.

The warnings about soccer

  • Use your head: A header is a strategic and fundamental move in soccer. Intercepting the ball in midair with the crown or top of the head can deflect or create goals or defend the midfield. However, repeated "heading" of the soccer ball may play a role in brain injuries or in deficits to attention and concentration.
  • Sprains, strains, and other pains: With so much running, sprinting, doubling back, falling, rolling, and other strenuous motor actions, there is a risk of sprains, strains, and twists. Shin splints can occur, bruising from collisions with the ball and other players is common, and general aches are to be expected after a rigorous game or practice. Make sure to warm up properly, and if injury occurs, use the RICE method of treatment: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.
  • Running the pitch: Soccer requires a good deal of running. Start slowly to avoid exhaustion or breathlessness. It takes time to build up cardiovascular and respiratory endurance to keep up with all the action. That said, the amount of running required really depends upon the tone of the game.

What you need for soccer

  • Ball: Regulation soccer balls measure about 71 cm in circumference and weigh roughly 15 oz. Any ball will do, though. Soccer lore says that Diego Maradona, an Argentinean fútbol superstar, grew up playing with clumped-up rags.
  • Goal: Again, soccer is a game for the masses, and not everyone has access to proper nets to mark goal zones. Also useful are small traffic pylon cones.
  • Shoes: Football boots, or cleats, help a player make the sort of quick direction changes that are a hallmark of good soccer footwork. For pick-up games and casual play, a supportive and light athletic shoe will do.
  • Protection: A soccer player's shins see a lot of action - other shins, the grass, the ball - so shin guards are advised to help prevent bruising and fractures. Someone playing goalkeeper may need more protective gear; some wear gloves, some wear helmets.
  • Teammates: Soccer teams traditionally have 11 players, some in defensive positions, and others as strikers or attackers (those who make a play for the goal). For casual fun and exercise, any number of willing, energetic friends can kick around and switch positions.

Inspiration to get you going

  • "Enthusiasm is everything. It must be taut and vibrating like a guitar string." -Pele
  • "You may get skinned knees and elbows, but it's worth it if you score a spectacular goal." -Mia Hamm
  • "True champions aren't always the ones that win, but those with the most guts." -Mia Hamm