From flying off to matches to visiting the great grounds, the beautiful game puts the world at your feet. As the new season kicks off, Frank Partridge coaches you in playing away

To kick off, where did it all begin?

Man has been using his feet to play with a ball for thousands of years, and since at least the third century BC has found ways of measuring his skill: relics from China's Han Dynasty record the kicking of a leather ball through a small opening into a net, although it was done as military training.

The game was probably brought to Britain by the Normans, but throughout the Middle Ages it was seen as a magnet for undesirables, and a focus of social unrest. Sound familiar? The game was banned by the Lord Mayor of London in 1314, but even by then its advance was irresistible.

It was the English Victorians who brought the ruffians' game to heel, by standardising the rules and, in 1863, setting up a governing body to oversee its development. The Football Association banned tripping, shin-kicking and handling, leading to the historic split with rugby football, the self-styled "gentleman's" sport which approved of such practices. Already, the first club had been formed (Notts County FC), while the Glasgow amateurs of Queen's Park pioneered the organised game in Scotland, developing the previously unseen skill of passing, and providing all 11 players who turned out against England in the first international match in November, 1872. It was a goalless draw.

Where can i go to delve further into football history?

Queen's Park play, confusingly, at Hampden Park, the Scottish national stadium which contains an excellent museum tracing the origins of the game north of the border (0141 616 6139; www.scottishfootballmuseum.org.uk). Inaugurated in 1903, Hampden is the oldest international football ground still in use, and for most of the 20th century was the largest stadium in Europe, with nearly 150,000 watching the Scotland-England clash in 1937. The museum contains a priceless collection, including a cap and ticket from that first international game, and the unique trophy awarded to Renton of Dunbartonshire in 1888 when they beat West Bromwich Albion 4-1 in a one-off game somewhat grandly known as "The Championship of the UK and the World". There are four stadium tours every day (11am, 12.30pm, 2pm and 3.30pm), including a walk down the players' tunnel, buffeted by a recording of the "Hampden roar" that once intimidated visiting teams.

The museum is open 10am-5pm daily (Sundays from 11am). Admission is £5 for adults, £2.50 for children and concessions, with an extra £3/£1.50 if you do the stadium tour as well.

What's the nearest equivalent in England?

The National Football Museum (01772 908 400; www.nationalfootballmuseum.com) at Preston North End's home ground, Deepdale. An unsung national treasure, it has a large collection of football memorabilia, and lots of film, photographic and interactive exhibits. Admission is free, although you may find it hard to resist the laser penalty game that tests your shooting abilities under pressure: £2.95 for three strikes.

Organised as a tour of two halves, the "First Half" is a time capsule tracing the development of the sport, while the "Second Half" features the great players and coaches, to show how the skills of the beautiful game have been refined. Open Tuesday to Saturday between 10am to 5pm (7.30pm on midweek matchdays), and Sunday 11am to 5pm.

Several clubs have museums of their own. At Anfield (0151 260 6677; www.liverpoolfc.tv) there is an evocative tableau that brings to life Bill Shankly's mid-Sixties Liverpool squad, gathered in the dressing room. Manchester United (0870 442 1994; www.manutd.com) offers a virtual reality tour of Old Trafford, and a tribute to the Busby Babes, cruelly destroyed in the Munich air disaster of 1958.

In London, Arsenal (020-7704 4504; www.arsenal.com) and West Ham United (020-8548 2700; www.whufc.com) have museums and collections worth exploring. This is Arsenal's last season at Highbury, making a visit to the museum in the North Bank Stand all the more evocative. The Hammers are staying at Upton Park for the time being: their museum has the unique treble of the World Cup winners' medals earned by Bobby Moore, Sir Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, who scored all the goals on that overcast day in the summer of 1966 when England, for the only time, conquered the world.

And for a Welsh angle?

The oval ball has always taken precedence over the round in Wales, so perhaps it's fitting that the Welsh Football Collection (01978 317970; www.wrexham.gov.uk) is tucked away in a corner of the County Borough Museum at Regent Street in Wrexham, close to the English border. Its location is just five minutes from the racecourse ground where Wales played their first international match in the spring of 1876 - a 4-0 defeat by Scotland. But as the exhibition points out, the Scots had had four years' extra practice. Much is made of Wales' finest hour, at the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden, when their unsung side reached the quarter finals and gave the eventual champions Brazil a mighty scare, dominating the game for long periods but conceding a single, fortuitous goal scored by an unknown 17-year-old called Pele. The museum is open between 10am to 5pm Monday-Friday, and 10.30am-3pm on Saturdays between April and September.

What about the National Stadium?

Wales' profile in the footballing firmament has been given a huge lift by the FA's decision to play English cup finals in Cardiff while Wembley is being rebuilt. The Millennium Stadium is Britain's finest, with the country's first retractable roof and 72,500 seats. Wembley should be ready in time for the FA Cup Final in May 2006, so Cardiff's finest football hours may be in the past, but don't count on it. The FA is provisionally booking Cardiff in case things go wrong at Wembley, as they so often have.

The Millennium is surely the most conveniently sited national stadium in the world, lying little more than a hefty defensive clearance from Cardiff's main street, castle and railway station. Official tours of the ground (10am-5pm daily; to 4pm on Sunday) cost £5.50 for adults, £3 for children. Quite reasonably, the place is more rugby than football-orientated, but the tour includes a fascinating demonstration of the roof mechanism: it's so well balanced that only £3-worth of energy is expended in opening or closing it. Tour bookings on 029 2082 2228; www.millenniumstadium.co.uk.

I'd Like an International Transfer

Travellers on the cross-Channel trains of Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) on the final approach to Paris pass very close to France's biggest stadium. The magnificent Stade de France (00 33 892 700 900; www.stadefrance.fr) was the home of its triumph in the 1998 World Cup. This imposing 80,000-seater is in the heart of the district of Saint-Denis. Once an area of relative poverty, Saint-Denis has been rejuvenated thanks to the investments brought by the new stadium.

There, "les Bleus", the French national team, play their home games. Next May, more importantly, it hosts the Champions League final, so fans of Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United or Everton might like to look it over in advance. A guided tour called "Au Coeur du Stade" (In the Heart of the Stadium) can take you where others can't go. You will be visiting the changing rooms, VIP stand and the museum area where the history of the stadium is conserved. Visits start every hour, 10am-5pm daily. Admission is €10 (£7) for adults, €7 (£5) for six- 17-year-olds. While in the area, it is worth visiting the Saint-Denis Basilica, home to the remains of the patron saint of France and French monarch. The basilica, built in the early 12th century, is considered one of the most beautiful constructions in the Gothic style.

Change Of Ends?

Ninety minutes' flight from London for as little as £80 return with easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) or three hours' train ride (08705 848 848; www.raileurope.co.uk) south from Paris is France's second-biggest city and second-biggest stadium, Marseille. The Stade Velodrome, which is no longer used for cycling, has a capacity of 60,000. It is the home of the club side Olympique de Marseille ( www.om.net), the only French team to have won the Champions League, back in 1993. In Marseille, football is followed with a passion only the Italians can match. A giant poster of the city's favourite son, Zinedine Zidane, who first kicked a ball in the local backstreets, can be seen from several miles out at sea. League games are played in the velodrome every two weeks, and have the hottest atmosphere you can find in a French stadium.

You can visit the changing rooms, VIP area, interview room and the Olympique de Marseille museum. The tour runs every two hours 10am-4pm Monday to Friday. Admission is €5 (£3.50). Marseille also has one of France's most beautiful seafronts, and during your stay you will be able to enjoy the goodness of Provençal cooking and Mediterranean weather.

Further afield?

Madrid, Lisbon and Munich have decent claims to football glory, but few would dispute that Barcelona and Milan are continental Europe's two main footballing cities. Barcelona's Nou Camp stadium (00 34 93 496 36 08; w ww.fcbarcelona.com) is the biggest in Europe, with seating for 98,800 and an atmosphere that makes you quake. It lies 5km west of the city centre and is easily accessible by metro and bus. The museum upstages its British counterparts by devoting much space to art - not only football-related, but works by Dali, Miro and other leading Spanish painters. A visit to the museum and a tour of the ground costs €9.90 (£7.50), open 10am-6.30pm daily (to 2pm on Sunday).

The San Siro stadium, home of local rivals Inter and AC Milan, is an extraordinary concrete, steel and glass structure built for the opening match of the 1990 World Cup. Its 11 free-standing cylindrical towers and retractable roof, hovering over the field like an alien spacecraft, produce a strange, echoing acoustic whether the stadium is full or not. Overall, it's a stylish and beautiful place - just like Milan itself, in fact. Like the Nou Camp, the stadium lies about 5km west of the city centre, and is well served by several metro and tram services. The museum ( www.sansirotour.com) opens every day between 10am and 5pm; admission is a rather steep €12.50 (£8.75).

How can I see these teams play?

In recent years, a number of specialist football travel agents have been doing brisk business selling weekend packages to European games, usually involving a two-night stay in a city-centre hotel somewhere in Italy or Spain. Hull-based Football Encounters, for example, will find you and your partner a three-star hotel in Valencia, and provide two lowest-category tickets for their home match against Real Betis on 28 August, for £352 all in (0870 760 5566; www.footballencounters.co.uk).

Matchdays.com (0870 050 2480), based in Warwickshire, specialises in La Liga and Serie A games, and is currently advertising packages to AC Milan games starting from £105 per head.*

The best in the world?

For more than half a century, the colossal Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro has been the principal shrine of planet football, hosting the biggest crowds and a series of wonderful Brazilian sides which have carried off the World Cup a record four times. The stadium was built for the 1950 tournament, when most spectators were expected to stand, and the official capacity was nearly 200,000, although it's widely believed that nearly a quarter of a million squeezed in for the final match between Brazil and Uruguay, which the home side surprisingly lost after taking the lead. Another unforgettable moment was Pele's 1,000th goal in 1969, scored from the penalty spot.

These days, the Maracana is a bit tatty, with crumbling concrete and broken seats; the capacity has fallen to 122,000, and there's a growing body of opinion that, like Wembley, it should be dismantled and rebuilt. Official tours of the stadium take place between 9am-5pm every day except match days (8am-11am). Admission is R$3 (70p), which also gains entry to the Garrincha Sports Museum, named after the flawed footballing genius who died of alcoholic poisoning, and pays tribute to Brazilian football and the great players who have raised the simple game to an exalted level.

Looking ahead, Germany is calling

The 2006 World Cup finals are less than 10 months away, and you won't be surprised to learn that Germany's preparations are comfortably ahead of schedule. An international tournament in June was used as a kind of dress rehearsal and went without a hitch.

Next summer, 12 cities will be hosting games, with the opening ceremony and match in Munich on 9 June, and the final in Berlin on 9 July. For the first time, all spectators will be seated and under cover. The way the qualifying groups are going, England are almost certain to be the only British representatives this time. Germany, as hosts, qualify automatically; Brazil, the holders, do not.

I'd like to catch a game or two live. What should i do?

Tickets for next year's World Cup are being released in phases, and early indications are that most of the 64 games will be sell-outs, although there are always a few "dead" matches towards the end of the first round, or games between poorly supported sides, where they virtually have to give tickets away. If you're determined to see at least one World Cup football match before you die, then were, say, Iran to be drawn against Paraguay at Gelsenkirchen you could almost guarantee to buy a ticket on the day. You never know, it could be a seven-goal thriller.

Obtaining a ticket to an England game, on the other hand, will be more of a challenge. Expect a massive surge in demand immediately after the draw on 9 December, no matter which three other nations are in their preliminary group. The FA (020-7745 4545; www.thefa.com) will receive only eight per cent of all purchasable tickets in each stadium, and most of those will go to accredited England supporters, so the likeliest source at this stage is the main ticketing centre in Frankfurt.

See the official World Cup website ( www.fifaworldcup.yahoo.com) for details of how to enter the ballots. Unfortunately, the purchasers are not always genuine fans.

When the first batch of 208,000 tickets went on sale in May, they were snapped up within minutes. Minutes later, they began to appear on eBay at twice or three times face value. The cheapest tickets should cost €35 (£24.50) for a first-round game and €120 (£84) for the final. FIFA insists that measures are being taken to curb illegal sales on the internet.

Additional Research By Raphael Giacardi

Do You Speak Football?

Calcio: what the Italians call football.

Folha seca means "falling leaf" in Portuguese. Used by Brazilian fans to describe the swerving free-kicks invented by Didi, one of their greats.

Futebol: what the fanatical Brazilians (right) call football.

Jogo benito: Portuguese for "the beautiful game", to which all Brazilians - and Portuguese for that matter - aspire.

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