John 1:1 – In the beginning was the Football… or was it the Word?

The global popularity of the sport has arguably made it a religion in its own right, with players worshipped as Gods by fans across the world. The most recent FIFA World Cup in 2014 had 3.2 billion viewers tune in at some point during the tournament, almost half of the world’s global population. But where did it come from, this phenomenon that became the most popular sport on Earth? Some might have you believe that it all began around 150 years ago in England’s green and pleasant land… but it turns out that the origins of football date back thousands of years, taking root in all the far reaches of the world.

A depiction of a public school playing football in 19th century England – but is this truly the birthplace of football?

Let’s start with the obvious – Wembley Stadium is known as ‘The Home of Football’, so England appears to be the accepted starting point of this most popular of sports. And it does seem that some variation of football has existed in England for hundreds of years, in a ‘mob football’ form that befits some of the rowdier crowds you’d get at a contemporary Millwall game. One legend suggests that this game was brought to England by the Anglo-Saxons, first played with the severed head of a vanquished Danish prince – while another theory believes it to have come across the shores with the conquering Normans. As it grew in popularity it quite literally became the people’s sport, with a ball kicked through medieval streets and hedges as whole villages would take part to get the ball to ‘goals’ often miles apart from each other (sometimes in the form of stone pillars). It’s fair to say that there weren’t many match officials for this base form of the game enjoyed by the common folk. Indeed, the official FIFA website explains one example found in an ancient handbook in Workington, where, “any means could be employed to get the ball to its target with the exception of murder and manslaughter”.

But it wasn’t for everyone, and there were several attempts to ban this troublesome sport that would become football. This was due to its disruptive and often violent nature, which resulted in towns and villages experiencing more property damage than a Crystal Palace team bus. If you have ever felt bitter when a school teacher has confiscated your football at lunchtime, imagine being in London in 1314 – the Lord Mayor of the time had people imprisoned for playing the chaotic sport. Worse than that, several Kings of England made it punishable by law to play the game during the 14th and 15th century, as the popular rough-and-tumble antics distracted people from pursuing sports like archery (given that England was involved in the Hundred Years’ War with the French around this time, being skilled at archery was considered somewhat more important). But as we all learned in primary school: just because a teacher confiscates a ball, it doesn’t mean we couldn’t find ways to play the game.

This precursor to football survived the wrath of Kings, and continued across the land in various unofficial forms, ingrained in the hearts and minds of the general public. Eventually all of these popular but disparate strands were combined and smoothed out to create one cohesive sport, with many of the rules that we know and love and hate today (depending on the referee) incorporated into this. In 1863 the Football Association in England was formed, becoming the sport’s first governing body. And that, it seemed, was that… Right?

An illustrated example of street football in Kingston upon Thames

Well, England may have created a governing body for football, but it was not the only country to have played the sport across the centuries. Even worse, much like we see today every time there is an international weekend, other European countries have displayed a far more exotic style of football than England could ever dream of. The FIFA website notes a 16th century variant from Italy named ‘Calcio’ that was more organised than the English equivalent, “played by teams dressed in coloured livery at important gala events held on certain holidays in Florence”. This could have been a revival of a game called ‘Harpastum’ which was played by the Romans even further back in time, itself inspired by a game enjoyed by the ancient Greeks named ‘Episkyros’. Little is known about the rules of them, but these nevertheless influential precursor sports are thought to date back thousands of years.

And yet, some of the best teams in the world do not come from Europe at all – did European settlers introduce football to the new lands they travelled to? Remarkably, it turns out that many of the indigenous people they met were way ahead of them. In 1586 English explorer John Davis and his crew were challenged to a game which resembled football, by Inuit tribesman they encountered in Greenland. The Inuits also had a unique brand of football named ‘Aqsaqtuk’, which literally translates as ‘football on ice’. At times the ball (filled with grass, moss and caribou hair) would have to be kicked miles to get to the opposition goal – and modern footballers complain about fatigue during extra-time! After the game the Inuit teams headed to a large communal igloo known as a ‘qaggi’ for a post-match feast – an incredible early example of a football clubhouse.

From Jamestown, Virginia in 1610, colonist William Strachey described a football-esque game which was played by Native Americans called ‘Pahsaheman’. And in South America, indigenous people were found to play ball games called ‘Pilimatun’ and ‘Ttchoekah’. Many of these examples are folkloric, and the date that they first came into existence may never be known. But historians have made one discovery that originates further back in time than any other, one strikingly similar to the game we have today. FIFA acknowledges this particular example as the earliest form of football for which there is conclusive evidence.

An illustration of Song Dynasty Emperor Taizu Playing Cuju

In ancient China there was a sport known as ‘Cuju’, or ‘Tsu’ Chu’. The FIFA website explains that this ancient game, “consisted of kicking a leather ball filled with feathers and hair through an opening, measuring only 30-40cm in width, into a small net fixed onto long bamboo canes”. It was a form of military exercise where, crucially, you were not allowed to use your hands. The Far East also saw the Japanese game known as ‘Kemari’, which emerged after 600 AD and is still played today. But incredibly, the first mention of Cuju is from the Chinese Han Dynasty in the 3rd century BC, over 2,200 years ago. This makes it the earliest known version of what we now call football, in a location that few might have initially predicted. China is not currently renown for its footballing prowess, making more headlines now for the money it spends on bringing in foreign players than for any success of its own national team. And yet long before the galas of Florence, the streets of England, and the igloos of the Inuits, it was in ancient China where the earliest example of football has been found.

Looking at early examples of football across several continents helps to paint a picture of who really invented the sport. It isn’t as simple as crediting England, simply because it created a governing body first – though it deserves a lot of recognition for surviving through the centuries, while other forms of the game fell away elsewhere. Looking across thousands of years of history, it seems the fairest conclusion to reach is that the world invented football. They may have been too far separated geographically to directly influence each other’s versions of the sport at first, but civilisations have undoubtedly been playing some form of it for decades, centuries, even millennia; they have been actively trying to bring the beautiful game to life. It makes sense in many ways – football is a relatively simple sport, with a public appeal unmatched quite simply because anyone can play and understand it with relative ease. But more than that, all of these examples have shown not just how truly global football is, but how global is has always been. Its appeal is ingrained, a deep root across the world which now stands as the most popular sport on Earth. While many variants of it no longer exist, it is perhaps no surprise that, when football finally became an official sport in 19th century England, the world embraced it with open arms.

To read about more strange stories like this one, please check out our Spring 2017 Box to Box Football magazine, Issue 4: Stranger Thingsavailable to order here!