Football – or soccer as it’s affectionately known in some parts – is said to date back to the 1860s in England, where ‘association football’ took hold and remains part of the fabric of English culture. However, it can be said that the true origins of football date back much further than the mid-19th century. With in this article, we’ll hop aboard our time machine to find out when the first iteration of ball games existed.
You’ll be fascinated to know that you can travel back as far as the Han dynasty in China to discover the first recorded example of a football game. “Cuju” is mentioned in military records during 200 and 300 BC. It was later developed by their Japanese counterparts during the Asuka period circa 600 AD. At this point, the game was known as “Kemari” and was regularly played in the Japanese imperial court. The game itself resembles “keepie uppies” whereby players would stand in a ring and attempt to keep the ball off the ground without it bouncing.
FIFA acknowledges the Ancient Greek game of Episkyros
The Ancient Greeks and Romans were also known to have a penchant for ball games. The Greek team game “Episkyros” is even acknowledged by FIFA as a rudimentary form of football. There are plenty of examples of indigenous cultures embracing ball games across the globe too. In the icy climate of Greenland, a British explorer John Davis discovered the Inuits playing a form of football on ice that they knew as “Aqsaqtuk”. Native Americans got in on the act too, when colonist William Strachey documented a game known as “Pasuckuakohowog” involving a ball and players’ feet.
The Britain and mainland Europe, the concept of playing games with a ball began to weave its way into society through the Middle Ages. Although the English version was more akin to a gaggle of boys chasing ball en masse in what was latterly described as “mob football”. Perhaps the most striking record of football being played in the early modern eras was in 1526, when King Henry VIII himself was said to have ordered a pair of football boots to be handmade for him.
Today’s football players will be grateful Calcio Storico didn’t stick
During that same century, another incidence of a football-esque game was recorded in the picturesque Italian city of Florence. Locals would play a game known as “Calcio Storico” known today as “Historic Kickball” to celebrate the time between Epiphany and Lent. The city’s aristocrats would don their finest outfits before embroiling in fierce physical battles. It was the most violent form of football on record – unsurprising given that this game was said to have been derived as part of an Italian military training exercise.
Like football, there are several other games that have been influenced by European culture. The game of tennis was hugely popular among the Italian, French, and Spanish nobility during the 17th century, but was discarded during the Age of Napoleon. The game of poker was also inspired by the 17th century French pastime Poque, which was an evolution of the Renaissance era card game Primero.
It was during the 17th century that the game of football was starting to be formalized in England. Francis Willughby authored the “Book of Games” and said that “gates” were used as goals, before penning an illustration of a football pitch. Willughby also notes the act of “scoring” and mentions the first concept of a foul as players “must not strike [an opponent] higher than the ball”.
Public schools across England eventually developed their own code for football games among scholars. Both Eton and Aldenham were said to have formalized their own set of rules for the game in 1815 and 1825 respectively. Away from the school environment, sports clubs began to crop up, giving locals an opportunity to socialize and represent their respective communities.
Sheffield F.C. remains the oldest surviving association football club on the planet, formed in 1857. Its first games involved the 58th Regiment and neighboring Hallam FC on 17 December and 26 December 1860 respectively. The inaugural international football game between England and Scotland was staged at The Oval in London on 5th March 1870, with the launch of the English FA Cup just a year later. The English Football League was founded in 1888 and remains the longest running Association Football League in the world.
Football has come an awfully long way from the rough and tumble of Calcio Storico on the streets of Florence or Kemari in the Asuka period. It’s now one of the biggest businesses in the world, with the world’s best players like Lionel Messi paid €138m per season in his previous Barcelona contract.