In the first-ever recorded ballgame, teams kicked and threw a ball made of rock, representing the sun, through hoops. This early ballgame resembled basketball more than it did soccer.
Soccer, or football as it’s known outside of North America, is more than just a popular modern-day sport; it’s a global phenomenon with ancient origins. While the current form of the sport has rules standardized by IFAB and FIFA, its history traces back to various cultures and civilizations across the globe.
First Soccer-like Game: Cuju
The earliest recorded form of a soccer-like game is ‘Cuju,’ which originated in ancient China from the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) in the 2nd or 3rd century BCE. In this game, participants used their feet to kick a leather ball filled with feathers through an opening; often, a cloth hung between two poles. The objective was simple: score more goals than the opponent without using hands. Cuju was highly popular during the Han Dynasty and even received imperial endorsement.
Boundaries of the game were set within a square area. This Soccer-like sports games quickly started appearing throughout the world: Pahsahëman, Marn Grook in Australia, and Kemari in Japan are some of the early adopters.
To this day, Kemari is still played in many parts of the world. People have enjoyed the beautiful game throughout history in different iterations.
Concurrently, various Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Olmecs, Aztecs, and Mayans, were also playing a form of ball game using rubber balls. These games were more than just recreational activities; they had ritualistic and sometimes deadly consequences. Unlike Cuju, these games allowed the use of hips and arms, and the objective was to pass the ball through a hoop attached to a wall.
Mesoamerican cultures today compromises the countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.
The Greeks and Romans also had their versions of soccer, known as Episkyros and Harpastum, respectively. In Episkyros, two teams aim to get a ball over the opponents’ boundary lines.
Harpastum, its Roman counterpart, was more violent and chaotic, with no fixed number of players or field dimensions. These games often included more physical elements like tackling.
Modern-day soccer, however, would not start to develop until the Middle Ages.
Entire towns in England would kick a pig’s bladder to and from different landmarks. Teams comprised massive groups that acted more like mobs.
The sport did not have standardized rules, and as such, many games were violent and caused property damage and casualties.
During medieval times, a variant of soccer known as "mob football" became popular in England. This form was more chaotic, with virtually no rules, often involving entire villages. Objectives could be miles apart, and the game would often devolve into a violent brawl. Despite several attempts by authorities to ban these unruly matches, the sport persisted and began to evolve into a more organized form. These games got banned due to persistent violence. Luckily, the sport would become legal again in 1605.
Eton College Rules
Due to a lack of standardization, schools had different rulesets for the game. With two schools being most prominent, Rugby and Eton, Rugby College allowed using hands to play the game, while Eton College would establish a set of rules that had the game played exclusively with feet.
In 1848, standardized rules were set in Cambridge. Schools, Colleges, and Universities adopted and recognized the new Cambridge Rules.
In 1863, 11 London schools and clubs went to Freemason’s Tavern and formed the first Football association, where the size and weight of the ball were standardized.
Also, a decision to disallow the use of hands in the game created the official divide between rugby and soccer.
By the 19th century, various public schools and colleges in England had their own rules for the game. The Football Association (FA) was created in 1863 to standardize these, and the first official rules, known as the "Laws of the Game," were established. This paved the way for the modern version of soccer we know today.
From Ancient Roots to Modern Game
Soccer’s rich history spans multiple continents, cultures, and eras. The sport has evolved considerably from the refined techniques of ancient Cuju to the ritualistic Mesoamerican ball games and the rowdy mob football of medieval Europe. Its global appeal and power to unite people under the banner of friendly competition have remained consistent. As we enjoy the latest soccer matches, it’s fascinating to consider the deep historical roots that have shaped the world’s most popular sport.
19th-century soccer wasn’t known for its defensive accolades. And a look at the oldest formations in the game shows how present a desire for attacking football was at the time.
Teams were more eager than ever in the game’s history to get the ball in the opposition’s half and score goals. Notably, the first international soccer match displayed how important it was for teams to play the game in the opposition’s territory.