Association football is the most popular sport in England, where the first modern set of rules for the code were established in 1863, which were a major influence on the development of the modern Laws of the Game. With over 40,000 association football clubs, England has more clubs involved in the code than any other country as well as the world's first club (Sheffield F.C.), the world's oldest professional association football club (Notts County F.C), the oldest national governing body (the Football Association), the first national team, the oldest national knockout competition (the FA Cup) and the oldest national league (the English Football League). Today England's top domestic league, the Premier League, is one of the most popular and richest sports leagues in the world, with six of the ten richest football clubs in the world.
Football was played in England as far back as medieval times. The first written evidence of a football match came in about 1170, when William Fitzstephen wrote of his visit to London, "After dinner all the youths of the city goes out into the fields for the very popular game of ball." He also went on to mention that each trade had their own team, "The elders, the fathers, and the men of wealth come on horseback to view the contests of their juniors, and in their fashion sport with the young men; and there seems to be aroused in these elders a stirring of natural heat by viewing so much activity and by participation in the joys of unrestrained youth." Kicking ball games are described in England from 1280.
In 1314, Edward II, then the King of England, said about a sport of football and the use of footballs, "certain tumults arising from great footballs in the fields of the public, from which many evils may arise." An account of an exclusively kicking "football" game from Nottinghamshire in the fifteenth century bears similarity to association football. By the 16th centuries references to organised teams and goals had appeared. There is evidence for refereed, team football games being played in English schools since at least 1581. The eighteenth-century Gymnastic Society of London is, arguably, the world's first football club.
The Cambridge rules, first drawn up at Cambridge University in 1848, were particularly influential in the development of subsequent codes, including association football. The Cambridge Rules were written at Trinity College, Cambridge, at a meeting called for by H. de Winton and J. C. Thring from Shrewsbury and attended by representatives from Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Winchester and Shrewsbury. They were not universally adopted. During the 1850s, many clubs unconnected to schools or universities were formed throughout the English-speaking world, to play various forms of football. Some came up with their own distinct codes of rules, most notably, Sheffield Football Club (the world's oldest club), formed by former public school pupils in 1857, which led to formation of the Sheffield & Hallamshire Football Association in 1867. In 1862, John Charles Thring of Uppingham School also devised an influential set of rules. His brother, headmaster of the school Reverend Edward Thring, was a proponent of football as an alternative to masturbation, seen as weakening the boys, and through football hoped to encourage their development of perceived manly attributes which were present in the sport. These ongoing efforts contributed to the formation of The Football Association (The FA) in 1863, which first met on 26 October 1863 at the Freemasons' Tavern in Great Queen Street, London. The Sheffield FA played by its own rules until the 1870s with the FA absorbing some of its rules until there was little difference between the games. A match between Sheffield and Hallam F.C. on 29 December 1862 was one of the first matches to be recorded in a newspaper.
With the modern passing game believed to have been innovated in London and with England being home to the oldest football clubs in the world dating from at least 1857, the world's oldest football trophy, the Youdan Cup, the first national competition, the FA Cup founded in 1871, and the first ever association football league (1888) as well as England having the first national football team that hosted the world's first ever international football match, a 1–1 draw with Scotland on 5 March 1870 at The Oval in London, England is considered the home of the game of football.
On 8 March 1873, the England national team's 4–2 win over Scotland at the Oval was the first ever victory in international football. The late nineteenth century was dominated by the growing split between the amateur and professional teams, which was roughly aligned along a North-South divide. Northern clubs were keen to adopt professionalism as workers could not afford to play on an amateur basis, while Southern clubs by the large part stuck by traditional "Corinthian" values of amateurism. Eventually, in 1885 the FA legalised professionalism, and when Aston Villa director William McGregor organised a meeting of representatives of England's leading clubs, this led to the formation of the Football League in 1888. Preston North End were inaugural winners in 1888–89, and were also the first club to complete the double of both winning the league and the FA Cup. Aston Villa repeated the feat in 1896–97.