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Children playing football in Thailand

4 Billion People Can’t Be Wrong: The Record-Shattering Popularity of Football, an Ancient Game

This ancient sport isn’t just a game – it’s a way of life.

Football (known as soccer in some countries) is no new kid on the block. The origins of people kicking a ball around for sport stretches back more than 2,000 years. Surpassing even the Olympic Games (another ancient tradition), no other sports event today measures up to the  FIFA World Cup . Now with four billion followers of football, it is by far the most popular sport in the world. How did an ancient ball game survive to this day to become the mammoth sporting event enjoyed around the world?

Football/Soccer dates back to ancient times. (Public Domain)

Football/Soccer dates back to ancient times. ( Public Domain )

Surprise! It wasn’t really started by England

‘Association Football’ (the ‘assoc’ is where the term ‘soccer’ comes from) is clearly the descendant of an ancient game which spanned the globe. Many cultures had foot-and-ball games dating back to even prehistoric times; Pahsaherman was played by Native Americans, the Moari’s had  Ki-o-rahi, and the Indigenous Australians had  Marn Grook . Mesoamericans famously played the dangerous and deadly ballgame now called Ulama .

(Left) A group of aborigines playing football in Guiana. (Public Domain); (Right) Paint of a Mesoamerican ballgame player in Teotihuacan. (CC BY 2.0)

(Left) A group of aborigines playing football in Guiana. ( Public Domain ); (Right) Paint of a Mesoamerican ballgame player in Teotihuacan. ( CC BY 2.0 )

China claims the earliest recorded ‘football’ game, dating to the Warring States period (476 BC – 221 BC). Cuju (kickball), was a competitive foot and ball sport involving kicking a ball into a net. Like today, hands were not allowed to touch the ball. This ball was initially a skin filled with feathers to keep it light, but by the Tang Dynasty the ball was air-filled. Its is said the net was hung 30 feet (nine meters) off the ground.

Painting shows children playing early football, Cuju, circa 1130–1160s AD. (Public Domain)

Painting shows children playing early football, Cuju, circa 1130–1160s AD. (Public Domain )

Using just the feet to control a ball while running, passing, and scoring, also like today, shows great physical skill. This is perhaps why the earliest mention of Cuju was in an exercise from a military manual from the third century BC. The ‘game’ was for fitness training and as such was intense and violent, but eventually the popularity of the sport moved to the upper classes and royal courts, and it was played for entertainment in wealthy cities. Cuju matches were often held inside the imperial palace.

Emperor Taizu of Song playing cuju with Prime Minister Zhao Pu, by the Yuan-era painter Qian Xuan (1235–1305). (Public Domain)

Emperor Taizu of Song playing cuju with Prime Minister Zhao Pu, by the Yuan-era painter Qian Xuan (1235–1305). ( Public Domain )

“Soldiers who belonged to the imperial army and Gold Bird Guard often formed cuju teams for the delight of the emperor and his court. The level of female cuju teams also improved. Records indicate that once a 17-year-old girl beat a team of army soldiers. Cuju even became popular amongst the scholars and intellectuals, and if a courtier lacked skill in the game, he could pardon himself by acting as a scorekeeper.”

Skills and Fancy Footwork

Cuju in different forms was played in Korea, Japan and Vietnam. The Japanese version, Kemari, was a kickball game introduced into Japan by China at some point of time prior to 644 AD. One of the earliest references to this game can be found in the  Nihon Shoki,  the second oldest book of classical Japanese history.

It was the upper classes in Japan who first played Kemari, and they regarded it as a refined game of skill and grace.

Kemari at play, 2006.(CC BY-SA 3.0)

Kemari at play, 2006. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The competitive and violent aspects were stripped away, and the goal of the game was to work together with the other players to use their feet to keep the ball in the air without letting it touch the ground. Nowadays, such skillful techniques and footwork to keep the ball in the air and away from the opponents is still a fun part of the sport and makes some masterful players, like Cristiano Ronaldo, world-renowned.

The Greek Episkyros

A famous ancient Greek ball game, Episkyros, is often linked with football/soccer because of a famous portrayal on a vase displayed at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens, but its true part in the sport’s story are less clear.

Ancient Greek football player balancing the ball. Depiction on an Attic Lekythos, Piraeus, 400-375 BC. (Public Domain)

Ancient Greek football player balancing the ball. Depiction on an Attic Lekythos, Piraeus, 400-375 BC. ( Public Domain )

Episkyros focused on teamwork, where two teams of 12 to 14 players each faced off with one ball. Unlike football, hands could be used to throw or receive the ball. They’d throw the ball until one of the team was forced behind a line on the ground at their own end. It was known to be extremely violent, and to modern eyes might have looked more like American football or rugby rather than soccer.

The Romans took the concept and ran with it, naming their version harpastum, from the word harpazein (to snatch).

Harpastum, ancient Roman fresco. (Public Domain)

Harpastum, ancient Roman fresco. ( Public Domain )

Throw in the British Empire

The contemporary organized sport most well known today as football began in the middle of the 19th century in England.

Football clubs have existed since the 15th century, but they were unorganized and without official status. A foot-and-ball game was played by large groups of people by kicking a pig’s bladder through the streets from one landmark to another. This was a nuisance to the towns and was even banned at some points.

A football game between Thames and Townsend clubs, played at Kingston upon Thames, London, 1846. (Public Domain)

A football game between Thames and Townsend clubs, played at Kingston upon Thames, London, 1846. ( Public Domain )

Some historians believe England (Sheffield) and Scotland (Edinburgh) were the first to have teams play against each other in the 1800s.

England’s vigorous Empire trade with other nations spread football far and wide, explains author John Doyle in his book The World is a Ball . Because only a ball and feet are really required to play, it was an inexpensive, enjoyable game that all classes, rich or poor, could do, making it the perfect fit as a ‘viral’ game. So even though the British Empire went into decline , football gained in popularity, and countries developed their own versions.

Today, the world’s governing body of football, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) includes 211 national associations, and every four years they compete in the month-long World Cup, held in different locations around the world.

Modern football can be played anywhere by anybody. (Public Domain)

Modern football can be played anywhere by anybody. ( Public Domain )

For many countries, it isn’t just a game – but a way of life. Children as young as 3 years old are trained to play (competitively or just as recreation), and it can be a lifelong activity. It is the number one sports event, and one of the highest paying competitions in the sports world, making players such as Diego Maradona, David Bekham, Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi known as epic figures around the world.

Is football the most enduring of ancient sports? Four billion lovers of the game think it’s a winner.

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Top image: Children playing football in Thailand ( Public Domain )

By Liz Leafloor

References

Mike Crocombe, 2018. The Origin, History, and Invention of Soccer. ThoughtCo.com [Online] Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/who-invented-soccer-3556873

Richard C. Giulianotti, Bernard Joy et al. Football/Soccer. Encyclopædia Britannica [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/sports/football-soccer

Editor, 2018. 25 World’s Most Popular Sports (Ranked by 13 factors). TotalSportek.com [Online] Available at: https://www.totalsportek.com/most-popular-sports/

Charles Benn, 2002. China's Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Editor, 2018. The History of Soccer. AthleticScholarships.net [Online] Available at: https://www.athleticscholarships.net/history-of-soccer-football.htm

Editor, 2018. History of Football - The Origins. FIFA.com [Online] Available at: https://www.fifa.com/about-fifa/who-we-are/the-game/index.html

Editor, 2018. Football History. FootballHistory.org [Online] Available at: https://www.footballhistory.org/

Editor, 2017. Greek Episkyros (Ball Game). HealthandFitnessHistory.com [Online] Available at: https://healthandfitnesshistory.com/ancient-sports/greek-episkyros-ball-game/

Comments

I don't think England ever claimed to have been the first to play what later became football or soccer, just the first ones to set the rules of the game we know it as now, and to establish it by forming teams, officials to adminster conduct and rules and leagues.

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