The art of football has probably been with us since before we even recorded in one form or another, the action of manipulating or striking an object with our feet may have in fact occurred before we became tool using mammals and developed an opposable thumb with which we could manipulate our environment.
In the annals of almost every culture on the Earth there are references to a history of playing games that are analogous to the modern games of soccer, rugby, footfall, and Australian Rules football. The Italians, Japanese, Chinese, Ancient Greeks, Persians, Vikings, and Meso-American cultures played games involving the manipulation and striking of a sphere like object with their feet.
Kicking, walking, and running actions are instinctive for the survivors of the battle of survival that has waged on the planet during the last million years. The development of ball games in society has emerged as one outlet of our instinctive nature to move, run, kick, compete…in an impulsive, yes, animalistic way more in tune with our inbred instincts inherited from our ancestors success in the battle of survival.
The records of the first ball games indicate they were impulsive affairs with few rules or regulations to hinder our instinctive desire for violence; often they involved the kicking motion of the legs in an attempt to strike or move a ball like object. Used as off-season training for warriors whose skills would erode with disuse, as entertainment for the bored masses, games involving the manipulation of a ball like object have been played around the planet and in almost every culture throughout the recorded history of mankind.
The earliest recorded kicking games were played by the citizens of ancient China as early as 5000 BC according to some sources, and probably before since a cultural phenomenon like a popular game might not begin to be recorded until it became culturally significant. Called Tsu’Chu, often spelled cuju, the game appears in Chinese military manuals dating from the Tsin Dynasty (circa 255 – 206 BCE) as part of the physical education program of Chinese soldiers at the time, and the game is recorded as having been very popular during the following Han Dynasty (circa 206 – 220 CE). Tsu Chu is translated as tsu meaning “kicking the ball with feet” and chu “a ball made of leather and stuffed”, specific terms for a game that is at least 4500 years old.
A skillful game requiring athletic prowess according to Chinese records, Tsu Chu athletes were often cultural and social heroes as well as warriors of note, with players restricted from using their hands to strike the “zuqui” in Chinese historical records. About the size of a volley-ball, made of roughly stitched leather panels and stuffed with traditional animal fur, Tsu Chu must have been a true athletic spectacle as players were according to records, amazingly athletic.
The object was to knock the “zuqui” through a hole in a weaved net 30-40 cm in diameter that was strung between two bamboo poles 20 to 30 feet in the air and was so difficult records indicate the first to score was the winner.
Artifacts found in Egyptian tombs from 2500 BC indicate that football-like games were being played in Egyptian society at the time, balls made of linen or wrapped in leather or deerskin to increase the bounce of the ball have been recorded as being used in the region during the time period. Many historians think that the origins of the Egyptian ball games may have roots in fertility rites in Ancient Egypt in which balls of seeds wrapped in colorful cloth were booted across the field of play.
One of the largest and longest living empires to exist on the planet, the Roman Empire, had its form of football, called Harpastum (the small ball game), the Roman form of football was popular for over 800 years and was played with a much smaller and harder ball then the earlier forms we’ve discussed. Played by 5-12 athletes on a rectangular field of play marked by boundary lines and split by a center line, sounds like a soccer field, Harpastum teams had to keep the ball in their own half of the field of play for as long as possible, while their opponents were trying to do the same. Records indicate that Harpastum only allowed for the tackling of the man with the ball, the feet were seldom used in this Roman version of rugby or Australian Rules football and apparently the rules developed during the years brought about the development of intricate passing patterns and devious play on the field of play, much like war.
The first Japanese football games were developed during the time period of 300 – 600 AD in Japan, called Kemari (sometimes called Kenatt) it was played by eight or less athletes with a nine or ten inch diameter deerskin covered ball stuffed with sawdust. Players were required to keep the ball from touching the ground or floor by juggling it with their feet and collectively passing it back and forth among one another, sounds like hacky-sack. They played on a field referred to as Kikutsubo, traditionally this is a rectangular-shaped playing field a different tree sapling planted in each corner of the field, and usually they were cherry, maple, willow and pine.
Not to be outdone, our South American brothers have according to records been playing a football like game called Pok-A-Tok since about 3000 BC, believed to be similar to the more modern game of Tlachtli, a game documented by the Spanish conquistadors in 1519 AD. Images found on murals and pottery from the period indicate that the playing pitch for the game was shaped like a capital, with the two sloping parallel walls being inset with three round disks called markers, at right angles to the ground. Players scored by hitting the markers, which were up to 9 meters off the ground, with a small rubber ball about 10 – 15 cm in diameter by using only their elbows, knees, or hips, making scoring such a feat that records indicate it usually ended the game. Pok-A-Tok was an intricate part of the religious, political, and social life of societies, like the Mokaya (Corn People), who are thought to be the ancestors of the Olmec and Maya. Social recreational affairs, a substitutes for actual warfare between cultures, many ideas have been postulated, but one thing is for sure these cultures had a love of football, like us all.