Many popular media lack comprehensive educational content on concepts like soccer, American football, rugby, and other variations. Most discussions often revolve around basic questions like identifying which sport is referred to as “Football”, distinguishing between American football and so-called “English football” (soccer), and using the term “football” in the United States. These discussions are rather simplistic and lack a straightforward introduction to various football genres. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to provide a direct overview of all existing forms of “football” worldwide, enabling you to instantly recognize various forms of the sport at a glance.
However, this article will not list the specific rules of each sport one by one. Instead, it aims to analyze the evolutionary logic and design principles of various “football” genres worldwide—why do they all belong to “football”? What kind of connections exist among them? And why did they evolve into different sports? I will try to explain the design and evolutionary logic of each football genre in a simple and straightforward manner, without delving too much into rule details.
Before discussing specific sports, let’s first introduce the common principles followed by all modern football genres:
First, all football genres highly allow the use of feet for ball contact and kicking.
Second, various football genres do not explicitly prohibit the use of hands in principle, but the essential differences among genres lie in whether, and to what extent, athletes are allowed to use their hands.
Therefore, even though in some football genres today, athletes have minimal opportunities to use their feet, it does not mean that these genres disallow the use of feet. It simply implies that they have introduced more effective means of control than foot contact, leading athletes to prefer not using their feet. However, all football genres have rules for scoring by touching the ball with the feet, indicating that “foot contact” is indeed at the core of “football.”
As for the second point, we need to recognize that even in modern football, which discourages the use of hands, it is not an outright ban. Goalkeepers, for example, are allowed to use their hands. In fact, the reason it’s called “football” and not “kickball,” as well as the difference between football and “蹴鞠” (cuju), likely stems from the fact that “football” might have allowed the use of hands from the beginning, although possibly only as an auxiliary method. The fundamental difference among football genres lies in the degree of acceptance of actions like “holding the ball while moving” and “hand throwing,” encompassing whether such actions are allowed and if they can score points. On the other hand, all football genres undoubtedly allow scoring by kicking the ball with the feet (though the scoring values may differ).
Next, let’s use “how hands are allowed” as a clue to sort out the design logic of various football genres.
Strict limitations on hand actions (height restrictions on handball movement, no hand scoring allowed) — Association football (soccer) genre
For the well-known sport of soccer, we won’t go into much detail. Let’s focus on the naming issue of soccer. The scientific name for soccer in our context is “association football,” and the term “soccer” comes from “association.” However, the question arises as to whether to translate the word “association.” Currently, of course, this concept is indeed challenging to translate, and football can be considered as corresponding to the entire concept of “association football.”
As mentioned earlier, soccer’s stance on hand use is “highly restricted” but not “prohibited.” In soccer, each team is required to have a goalkeeper who is allowed to touch the ball with their hands, and they can even briefly hold and move the ball using their hands. Additionally, soccer requires the use of hands for throwing the ball in from out of bounds. However, on one hand, the goalkeeper’s hand movement is strictly limited to the penalty area, and on the other hand, current soccer rules prohibit any form of hand scoring (including throw-ins and goalkeepers’ hand throws).
Here, let’s introduce derivative sports genres based on association football:
These can be considered reduced forms derived from association football and are recognized by the “association” directly governed by FIFA. It’s worth mentioning that “Futsal” does not explicitly state “indoor football” or “indoor soccer” because it specifies the use of a hard floor but does not mandate playing indoors. The term “Futsal” originally had the meaning of “indoor” in Portuguese, but besides “Futsal,” there are other indoor football variations worldwide.
1.2 Beach soccer
Let’s specifically discuss why these genres are considered derivatives of “association football,” and it is essentially based on the mentioned “hand action restrictions.” Due to the smaller size of indoor and beach soccer fields compared to traditional football fields, the hand-throwing actions allowed in traditional football—throw-ins, and goalkeeper throws—have a higher probability of directly entering the goal (although throw-ins are not intended for scoring). Therefore, the mentioned genres directly stipulate that goalkeeper throws cannot directly score, and indoor soccer replaces throw-ins with a footkick.
No restriction on hand-held ball movement — Derivative genres based on Rugby rules
We often hear the rumor:
In a town called Rugby in the UK, a young boy named Webb Ellis, from a school in the town suddenly picked up the ball and ran during a football game. This seemingly absurd move was unexpectedly accepted by others and gradually evolved into another way to play football. Consequently, the sport was named after the town, although this legend is more like a later association. Nevertheless, it is highly revered in today’s rugby world, to the extent that the Rugby World Cup is named the “Webb Ellis Cup.” Upon closer inspection, the fundamental difference between rugby rules and association football lies in the act of “picking up the ball and running,” allowing players to move with the ball without any restrictions. Based on this foundation, the design principles of all rugby-style sports derived from rugby rules can be summarized as follows:
- Allow players to hold the ball and move with it without restrictions, permitting certain degrees of throwing actions.
- Allow the defending side to “tackle” opponents by physically bringing them down (referred to as a “tackle”). However, this direct physical defense does not grant immediate possession of the ball.
- Allow the attacking side to score by holding the ball across the opponent’s goal line. Additionally, the attacking side is allowed to score by kicking the ball into a narrower goal than the goal line.
As for the differences among “football” genres based on rugby rules, they essentially revolve around these two points — how to allow “throwing actions” and how to determine possession after implementing “physical defense against opponents.”
2.1 No restriction on hand-held ball movement but limits hand passing direction (cannot pass forward) — Rugby Union, Rugby League
Generally, when explaining the rules of Rugby Union (Rugby) online, it is sometimes simplistically stated as “no forward passing.” However, this may leave people wondering why such a straightforward action is prohibited. In reality, the essence of the rule “no forward passing” is akin to the offside rule in soccer. Its true meaning is: not allowing a player without the ball to move in front of the ball — signifying that the ball represents the “territory.” The team in possession of the ball can freely handle the ball within its territory (run, kick, pass). However, to advance into the opponent’s territory, they can only carry the ball forward by running or kicking it forward and then contesting for it. At any time, no player from the team in possession can be positioned in front of the ball (inside the opponent’s territory). The act of hand-passing the ball forward is a violation of the territorial handling regulations.
2.1.1 Upon successful defensive tackle, both teams contest for possession on the spot — Rugby Union
2.1.2 Upon successful defensive tackle, no contest for possession; the attacking team restarts from the intercepted position — Rugby League
As mentioned earlier, another core aspect of rugby rules is the implementation of “tackling” by the defensive side. This is one of the most challenging concepts for those familiar only with soccer and basketball in the Chinese sports context, as neither soccer nor basketball allows defenders to infringe upon the opponent’s body. In those sports, defenders can only make a move when the ball is away from the opponent’s body. However, in rugby, where the rules allow unlimited ball-carrying by the attacking side, it’s crucial to understand the logic: the rules permit defenders to reasonably infringe upon the opponent’s body (tackle), but defensive actions relying on body infringement do not directly result in gaining possession of the ball.
Based on this principle, we can differentiate two branches under rugby football (although the Chinese internet is still debating between “American” and “English” football, and very few understand the differences between Rugby Union and Rugby League). Here, let’s discuss the translation issue of these two concepts. I don’t support forcibly translating “union” and “league.” In reality, the words association, union, and league have no fundamental differences. “Union” and “league” were deliberately used by the British at that time to distinguish from other major genres, and they do not have any inherent differences in meaning.
Returning to the discussion of “defensive tackle,” in Rugby Union, if the ball carrier’s body is completely restricted by the defensive side (grabbed or brought down), the ball carrier must voluntarily “release the combat power,” meaning they must release the ball. However, the game does not pause at this moment, and both sides’ players can continue with physical contests until the ball is picked up by either side. This ongoing contest after the ball carrier is tackled is known as a “maul” (the ball carrier remains standing) or a “ruck” (the ball carrier is brought down) in Rugby Union. In the Rugby League, when the ball carrier’s body is tackled, the contest state immediately pauses, and at this point, the defensive side must retreat 10 meters while the attacking side continues with another player carrying the ball.
Based on this difference, Rugby Union allows one side to have an unlimited number of attacks, regardless of how many times they are tackled. In reality, as the attacking side can often maintain control of the ball even after being tackled, an attack may persist until a scoring opportunity arises. Rugby League, on the other hand, only permits one side to be tackled six times (the defensive side must retreat 10 meters after each tackle). After six tackles, possession automatically transfers.
Let’s briefly discuss the relationship between the Rugby Union and the Rugby League. In simple terms, the Rugby League initially emerged as a simplified version of the Rugby Union. From its inception, the Rugby Union resisted professionalization, leading some athletes in Britain who hoped to earn money through playing to establish a league-style professional sports league. They simplified the rules of Rugby Union to make it more accessible and suitable for professional leagues. Over time, the Rugby League developed into an independent sport. Today, the Rugby Union still holds a mainstream position globally. Interestingly, the Rugby League is more popular in only one country worldwide, and that country is Australia, which is quite far from the UK.
2.2 No restriction on hand-held ball movement, allows a certain degree of forward passing — Gridiron football
The reason why the labels “American” and “English” football are not scientifically accurate lies in the fact that within the so-called “English” football, it is necessary to distinguish between the Rugby Union and the Rugby League. Similarly, within the so-called “American” football, there are American and Canadian variations. The more accurate term for the latter is “Gridiron football,” derived from the field markings resembling a cast-iron gridiron used for grilling. Historically, North American Gridiron “football” is a local adaptation of Rugby rules. In general, the notable feature of Gridiron football is “allowing forward passing,” but only once. However, the fundamental difference is that after a successful defensive tackle (tackle), the game requires a reset. Both teams need to line up at the interruption point, called the “line of scrimmage,” and neither side can cross this line until the game restarts. In simple terms, this can be referred to as “dead ball offside,” meaning that the offside rule comes into effect when the game is paused. In contrast, rugby rules (both union and league), including soccer, fall under “live ball offside,” meaning there is a continuously active offside line during the game.
Based on this setup, in Gridiron football, every successful defensive tackle requires a pause in the game, with both sides forced to reposition. Meanwhile, the attacking side needs to advance a certain distance within a limited number of opportunities. Once they successfully advance to a specific position (usually 10 yards), the attacking side regains a full set of opportunities. It’s essential to note the difference from Rugby League, where the limitation is in terms of “number of attempts” — the attacking side loses its chance after being tackled six times, regardless of distance. In Gridiron football, it is a combination of “distance + number of attempts” — if the attacking side fails to advance enough distance within a certain number of attempts (4 or 3 times), they lose the opportunity. However, if they succeed in advancing the required distance, the attacking side regains a full set of opportunities.
2.2.1 After a successful defensive tackle, both teams line up directly on the “line of scrimmage,” and no movement is allowed until the ball is put back into play — American football 2.2.2 After a successful defensive tackle, the defensive side must line up 1 yard behind the “line of scrimmage,” but apart from players involved in the lineup, both sides can freely move behind the line before the ball is put back into play — Canadian football
Let’s briefly discuss the difference between American and Canadian football. The fundamental difference lies in the pause state before the “line of scrimmage.” American football requires the attacking side to maintain a highly static formation when lining up on the line of scrimmage. Only one player from the entire team (circled in red in the image) is allowed to move, and that movement is limited to parallel or backward motion. In Canadian football, the attacking side, except for the quarterback and linemen (players lining up on the line of scrimmage), is allowed to move freely. Additionally, in American football, the attacking and defensive sides need to directly face each other on the line of scrimmage during the kickoff (maintaining only a one-yard distance). In Canadian football, the defensive side needs to retreat 10 yards, leaving a buffer zone between the attacking and defensive sides.
From the rules of American and Canadian football, we can see that American football emphasizes a “static contest” in each round. The duration of passing and running tactics in each round is short, but the contest between offense and defense is intense, requiring precise tactical organization from both sides. Canadian football appears more fluid and encourages passing attacks (the attacking side is allowed one fewer attempt to advance 10 yards compared to American football).
Now, let’s briefly discuss some traditional English/American football derivatives based on rugby rules:
2.1.1 Rugby Sevens
Rugby Sevens is a simplified version introduced by the Rugby Union to promote its inclusion in the Olympics. Why not directly include the original Rugby Union in the Olympics? On one hand, the original Rugby Union already has a World Cup brand similar to football, and there is not a strong demand for Olympic inclusion. On the other hand, the original Rugby Union requires more physical stamina than football, and matches need to be spaced several days apart, which does not fit the compact schedule of the Olympics. Besides reducing the number of players, the rules of Rugby Sevens are not fundamentally different from the original (14 players), so we won’t go into too much detail here.
2.2.1 Flag Football
For football-related sports that allow direct physical defense, the biggest obstacle to their promotion is the excessive violence as a “full-contact” sport. Therefore, whether it’s in the Rugby series or the Gridiron series, various football sports have attempted to introduce derivative versions to reduce the level of violence. One noteworthy example is “Flag Football,” derived from American football. It specifies that each player must wear two flags around their waist, and the defensive team can successfully “tackle” the ball carrier by capturing one of their flags. Additionally, Flag Football mostly eliminates the kicking aspect of the original American football, a common practice in many simplified versions based on American football (ironically, despite American football staunchly calling itself “football,” it has the lowest status for the foot among all football derivatives, even lower than Canadian football).
Independent-Origin Rules – Allowing Ball Movement but Restricting Distance
We already know that traditional “association” football rules generally do not allow players to move the ball with their hands, while rugby football rules fully allow it. So, are there rules that allow some degree of movement but restrict how far a player can move? Certainly, they originated outside the main territories of the Anglosphere in Australia and Ireland. Interestingly, despite the considerable distance between Australia and Ireland, these two independently originated “football” variations appear surprisingly similar, confirming the shared “design philosophy” mentioned earlier. We can also consider that the form of modern football before it split into modern football and modern rugby was likely a combination of hands and feet, with modern football and modern rugby later choosing to exclude one of the two.
The term “allowing ball movement but restricting distance” can be understood by analogy with basketball. Players can move with the ball but are limited to a certain number of steps; otherwise, they must release the ball to the ground before continuing to move. Of course, Australian and Gaelic (Irish) football are still “football,” allowing a full range of foot movements. Compared to the previous rugby rule variations, Australian and Gaelic rules give a higher status to foot movements. This includes two points: 1) There is no scoring by touching down; goals are scored by kicking the ball into different scoring areas (meaning scoring generally requires the use of feet); 2) Passing by throwing is not allowed, but short-distance passing using fists or open palms is permitted, making it necessary for the attacking team to advance by kicking the ball. At the same time, Australian and Gaelic rules both eliminate the offside rule, making their core tactics significantly different from rugby-style rules, essentially summarized as “kick-pass – hand-receive – kick-shoot,” requiring both hands and feet to play a significant role (though not much different from football itself).
3.1 Oval Field, Oval Ball, Four-Post Goal – Australian Rules Football
3.2 Square Field, Round Ball, Box + Double-Post Goal – Gaelic Football
Although the differences in appearance between Australian and Gaelic football are too obvious, almost immediately distinguishable, interestingly, these two have almost no fundamental differences in rules — at least differences far smaller than Rugby Union and Rugby League, as well as American and Canadian football. Both follow the basic rules of “allowing ball movement but requiring release after a certain distance” and “kick-pass – hand-receive – kick-shoot.” The playing fields for both are much larger than football and rugby. The differences in appearance are as described above Australian football has an oval field, an oval ball, and a goal with four posts (six points in the middle and one point on each side); Gaelic football has a square field, a round ball, a goal similar to football (with a frame and two upright posts), with 3 points for a lower goal and 1 point for an upper goal, and there is a goalkeeper. In some details, Australian football requires the ball carrier to bounce the ball on the ground every 15 meters of movement, while Gaelic football requires the ball carrier to either bounce or touch the ball to the ground every 4 steps. Australian football allows physical defense (tackle), and the defensive team directly gains possession after a successful tackle (so the attacking team usually cannot hold the ball for an extended period). Gaelic football does not allow physical defense.
Australian football also has an offensive reward rule called “mark” (as shown in the figure below): if a player kicks the ball 15 meters away and another player from the same team catches it directly from the air, this action will be rewarded as a free kick. Moreover, the attacking team can even ride on the opponent’s body to catch the ball. This makes Australian football look quite lively, with a fast-paced rhythm in both matches and transitions between offense and defense (almost like “field ice hockey”). In comparison, the rhythm and tactics of Gaelic football are closer to traditional football.
3.3 International Rules Football
This is a combined version of Australian and Gaelic rules, essentially implementing the style of Australian football on the field of Gaelic football. The field adopts the square shape of Gaelic football, while the goal is a combination of Australian and Gaelic styles (a rectangular goal, a top area, and two side areas), so both teams have goalkeepers. The process of the game is based on Australian football, with the addition of two iconic rules from Australian football: “mark” (gaining a free kick by catching a high pass) and gaining possession directly after tackling an opponent.
Finally, if you find it challenging to remember the names of these football variations, there is a relatively simple way to name them – based on the number of players. Various “football” variations seem to have reached some kind of consensus – deliberately staggering their on-field player numbers. So, let’s summarize the on-field player numbers for various “football” variations that are easily mistaken for American Football:
- Rugby Union: 15 players
- Rugby League: 13 players
- American Football: 11 players
- Canadian Football: 12 players
- Australian Rules Football: 18 players