Around the world, the most popular sports all tend to descend from games played in the British Isles for hundreds of years. This is partly a legacy of Imperialism, of the way that the traditions of this little corner have been transplanted and reinterpreted around the world. Of the many games to make that voyage, one ancient game has split into more variants, and achieved greater popularity, than any other.

Every code of football around the world descends back to a set of related games played in Britain and Ireland since medieval times. ‘Foot Balle’, as it was usually written down, didn’t really have a set of rules and the specifics of how the game would be played could vary from region to region. One common theme seems to be a game with no limit on players, in which anything goes and the sole goal is to convey a ball (or other suitable stand-in) across the boundaries of a parish. Such games were brutal, and were often banned as they left people unable to work, or in times of war, to fight.

The big sea change in the game is the increased interest in sports betting amongst the British aristocracy in the eighteenth century. This made plenty of games more socially acceptable than they had been. It is solely responsible for the codification of both Cricket and Baseball, and one of the side effects is that football started to be played in the Universities and Public Schools of the English Upper-Class.

Each school and University still had their own rules, though, which meant playing against each other was difficult. Some attempts at cross code games were made, but sometimes rules were so different that it made such an undertaking nonsensical. Two of the most important schools in this were Cambridge University, and Rugby. The latter had existed in various forms for centuries before being fully codified in 1845, while in 1848 Cambridge University published the Cambridge rules of football, which became the blueprint for a lot of what is to follow.

But of course, there was still no way for teams from different schools of regions to play each other without some kind of inter-code compromise. That changed in 1863, with the formation of the football association. Shortly before hand a revised version of the Cambridge Rules had been published and became the initial rules for what would be called Association Football – with association eventually corrupted in much of the world to give it the name ‘Soccer’. These rules did not sound much like football today – you were offside if you were stood in front of a team mate in possession, and could control the ball with your hands – but the distinction from other codes meant that some kind of schism was inevitable.

The clubs who played Rugby objected to two proposed changes from the Cambridge laws. The first was that you would only be allowed to control the ball with your hands, rather than to catch it and run with it under certain circumstances. And the second was that there was a proposal to remove hacking, or bringing your opponent down by throwing a kick to the shins, from the game. One of the most contentious clubs was the Blackheath whose representative famously said that hacking was an integral part of the game, and if it were removed, he would be bound ‘to bring over a group of Frenchmen who would beat you with a week's practice’. The Rugby Clubs withdrew, and seven years later the Rugby Football Union was formed, fully codifying this other form of the game. In the first instance these clubs were all from the affluent Home Counties of England, which would have a social impact on the game and its perception in the future.

During this time, Rugby began to be popular in Ireland, displacing the medieval forms of the game that had been popular there during the same time that football had been a very regional affair in England. Once Association Football began to develop a following in largely-Protestant Ulster, there was a pushback against this incursion with the formation of the GAA, with the promotion of specifically Irish games against those from outside the country, and particularly English sport. In some respects Gaelic Football can seem to be the most like the organised chaos of the medieval game, while in other aspects you can see the influence of the desire to avoid similarity with the English games, and in the connection with other sports such as Hurling.

Ireland was not the only colony (or former colony) in which the sport would spread. American independence did not, in the nineteenth century, lead to a wholesale cultural independence and an embrace of different games. Not everyone knows that the first international cricket match was a contest between Canada and the United States, and the Americans embraced both codes of football during these formative decades too. A key moment in the development of a genuinely separate code comes in 1880, when a player at Yale University secures a transition from a ‘scrum’ restart to a ‘snap’. This set the US on an entirely different course, and while Rugby had a tendency to scrap for the ball at all times, American Rugby Football –eventually dropping the first two words in a nationalistic spasm to become simply ‘football’ – American football ended the contest for the ball the moment the player in contact hit the ground, removing the ruck, making for a cleaner restart of play and, arguably, for a more accessible spectator sport. There were some false starts with the rule and the sport did not initially catch on, but the invention of ‘downs’ a couple of years later saw the completion of the emergence of a new code.

Things happened even earlier in Australia, with codification taking place before either the football association or the RFU were formed (though not, as is sometimes claimed, before these rules were written down). The Australian rules were essentially Rugby rules but with a clear effort to remove the rougher elements of the game, and to try and ensure that players spent less time on the hard, sun-baked ground of the Victoria colony. Many people speculate that there is an Irish influence on Aussie Rules and the two even play cross-code games against each other, but to the best of my knowledge there is no material proof for a connection. It seems that Rugby was the primary influence on Aussie rules and the similarities with Gaelic football are as a result of a social form of convergent evolution.

The development of various codes in the first instance can be explained by the way in which they were manoeuvred and altered to suit the needs of whichever group of people were playing. Some of this was coded by location. But once the guidelines of this were set, two other factors would influence the development of the various games and lead to still more breakaways: class, and business.

Association football became the dominant code in the Industrial cities of Victorian England, and soon there was a large paying public willing to pay in order to see games. Soon, rumours that players were being paid to play for certain teams started to swirl. After much hand-wringing and outrage, professionalism was accepted into association football in 1885. In previous years, teams winning the FA Cup had represented Oxford University, Charterhouse and Eton public schools, and the Royal Engineers of the British Army. No amateur team would win the cup again. In 1888, a fully professional football league was formed, based not around London and the wealthy south east, but around the new power base for the game – the industrial heartlands of Lancashire, the Potteries, and the Midlands. The most Southerly team in that first season was West Bromwich Albion, themselves almost on the exact same latitude as their near-rivals, Aston Villa. No Southern team would appear in the league until Woolwich Arsenal, in 1893.

Rugby had become a more national game by this point than it had been when the RFU was first founded, with clubs in Yorkshire and Lancashire, particularly in a few large industrial towns such as Bradford and Leeds. Initially, when soccer was giving way to professionalism the pushback was a lot stronger across all of the Rugby Football Union, North and South. But all was not well in the Rugby camp. Northern clubs wanted players to be ‘compensated’ for missing work, given that their players were drawn from a more working class base, while those in the South saw this as a backdoor to professionalism. They also disliked that meetings were held in London, thus making it harder for Northern clubs to attend and – they claimed – ensuring that the voices of the Southern interests would always be held more closely.

Things came to a head when the RFU charged a spate of Northern clubs with paying players, and the rest of the North came out in support of their neighbours. In 1895, the Northern Rugby Football Union was formed, a name that would eventually transition into Rugby League. As a professional game, Rugby League immediately put more of a premium on being a spectator sport, and so by 1907 the rules had been amended so that, like American Football, the ruck had been eliminated from the game, replaced with the ‘play the ball’, or rolling the ball backwards with the boot. Eventually Rugby League would evolve along lines still more similar to the Gridiron game, with the introduction of limited tackles (similar to downs) in the 1960s.

As for Rugby Union, they maintained their amateur status until 1995. The fight for the ball on the ground and when a player is held up is still the most defining feature of the game, the one that separates it from all the other codes, and even in the professional era there is a strong emphasis on trying to maintain the Corinthian spirit of the amateur days. It’s distinctiveness is probably why it is rebounding globally, when at one time it looked like Rugby League would eclipse it as a game, while the latter code has achieved dominance in parts of Australia and Papua New Guinea but seems to be in decline on its ancestral turf. Gaelic Football is still fiercely, proudly amateur, though deals with many of the same problems that Rugby Union was forced to confront in the 1980s. Aussie Rules has its own very successful niche, but it’s one that I don’t fully comprehend. Meanwhile, Soccer and American Football go from strength to strength – Soccer has truly become the world’s game and is the national sport of more nations than any other, while American Football has looked to expand beyond its North American power base in recent years and is attracting new fans in all corners of the world.

This weekend, more people will watch a code of football (or three) than perhaps any other weekend this year. The showpiece of American Football takes place. The Six Nations tournament kicks off in Rugby Union. There are full programmes in domestic soccer leagues around the world, including the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, and Italian Serie A. In English Rugby League, games will take place in the Super League, and Challenge Cup. There’s a good chance some people will be watching the final preseason preparations for the upcoming AFL season in Australia, while there’s always a game of Gaelic Football going on somewhere in Ireland. And with all those eyes on the various codes, it’s worth taking a moment to think that whether you are a New England Patriot or a Leeds Rhino, whether you root for Essendon or Everton, that we’re all part of an intricate, interconnected set of threads that can be followed back to a single moment, of two villages trying to wrestle a pig’s bladder over the boundary of a parish church.

Not many people have really used this bit of the board for non-wrestling related writing, so I thought I'd get the ball rolling with this 'column' about sport. Feedback welcome, hope you enjoyed it.