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History of Football: The Ancient Origins to Middle Age and the South American version

Find out about the roots of football.

History of Football: The Ancient Origins to Middle Age and the South American version

Surprise, football did not originate in England.

The game has existed in many forms around the globe. This series of articles explores how football developed in the different eras and regions.

Starting from ancient times:  


Ancient Times

Ball games existed throughout the different civilizations as early as 2500 BC.

Evidence of the oldest ball game was found in various artifacts in Egyptian tombs. Egyptians made balls of linen, and sometimes of animal sinew for better bouncing. Very little is known from that period.

Traces of a game called Episkyros (also known as Phaindina) originating around 2000 BC were found North across the Mediterenean in ancient Greece.

It was game close to nature. It was played predominantly by men who were naked. But sometimes even naked women took part.

The Greeks made balls with low bouncing capability from hair and linen. An engraved image on the European Cup depicts a Greek athlete playing Episkyros.

On the other side of the world, during the time of the Ts’in and Han Dynasties(255 B –220 AD) in China, people played a ball game called “tsu chu”. The aim was to drive an inflated animal-skin ball through the holes of a net stretched between two poles.

The uses of these games differed from nowadays too. Apart from entertainment, they also served as training and religious ritual.

In Rome for example, soldiers played “Harpastum” (meaning a heavy hand-ball, rugby). It is believed they had taken the idea from the Greek game, Phaindina, and tweaked it to suit their purposes.

The game was popular as training in military circles. It involved a lot of heavy tackling, jumping, and running with a small ball which caused chaos and the ocassional bloody nose.

Galen, a Roman physician and philosopher, described the game as “better than wrestling or running because it exercises every part of the body, takes up little time, and costs nothing.”

Another game simply named “ball” was played somewhere in Pre-Medieval Europe.

Two villages would try to kick a ball, a skull most of the times, into each other’s centre square.  It involved men and women of the whole village and it usually played out a notch bellow full-blown riot.

Another pre-medieval custom involved using the bladders of the animals killed for winter. The bladders were inflated with air, thus creating the first prototype of the modern day ball. The only rule of the game was to keep the ball in the air, using all parts of the body.


Aztec and the Oriental version

At about the same time the Chinese played their Tsu’Chu, the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas played a game in South America that football could have originated from.

This thousand-year-old South American love affair with such games is perhaps the reasons national teams on the continent have been dominant in modern football.

The pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Bahamas, Tainos, played a game on a stone-lined cemented field which served as a ritual bonding ceremony between their tribes and communities. It also involved dancing, singing and feasts.

As early as 3000 years BC, the Aztecs invented games serving their religious and political aspirations.

They played a sacred game called Olama in every major city in the Aztec empire. It served an important role in their religious rituals.

The game was played on courts called Tlachtli usually placed near temples to emphasize the religious significance.

Heavy-padded teams would use everything apart from hands to drive a rubber ball through a hoop approximately 30 centimeters wide in a strange mix of volleyball, basketball and football.

When they used hands or the ball touched the ground, referees who were people of status or roalty, awarded them penalty points. Whatever the score the immediate winners were those who put the ball through the hoop.

The stakes of the game could raise shivers in your bones though.

Some cultures sacrificed the ‘fortunate’ winners and others–the losers. Either way, the players were literary playing for their lives.

On the other side of the globe, specifically in Japan, they played a game called Kemari. It originated around year 600, during the Asuka period.

A ball, called Mari, was kicked about, made of deerskin with the hair facing inside, filled with barely grains. The kicker of the ball was caller Mariashi. It was not as spectacular as and as competitive as its Chinese counterpart but it still involved the whole body.

The game survived to this day. For the Japanese, it produced a dignified and ceremonial experience.


Read about Football in Medieval Britain here.



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