History of Soccer – Antiquity

Football is as old as the world … People have always played some form of football, from its very basic form of kicking a ball around to the game it is today.

- Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA

Blatter believes modern soccer can trace its development to ancient China. The picture at the top of this post is the sport Blatter feels is soccer’s forefather – cuju.

As part of Fútbol for Gringos mission to provide palatable content for footie fanatics and casual sports fans, we’re examining the veracity of Blatter’s claim, ie where did soccer come from?

We are certainly not historians and owe our knowledge of soccer’s origins to David Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer.

Keep reading after the jump to find out if soccer can find its true genesis in China, the Americas, or Europe.


The Chinese game pictured above was one of the earliest known ‘foot’ games that used a marked field. Cuju employed a “stitched leather ball stuffed with fur or feathers” and had two goals (sometimes a hole in a sheet strung between bamboo posts), but, in contrast to soccer, use of the hands was allowed.

Over time the game developed two distinct forms – “the common or popular game Bai Da and the courtly game Zhu Qiu.” In the former, two teams competed simultaneously to score goals. Zhu Qi, though, eliminated one of the goals, removed physical confrontation (ie you couldn’t steal the ball from the other team), and added an emphasis on keeping the ball from touching the ground, as opposed to merely scoring goals.

Both games were popular enough to be recorded in Chinese literature, but, contrary to what Blatter would have you believe, they were not the beginning of an ever-evolving game that culminated in soccer. Bai Da and Zhu Qi gradually waned in popularity and by the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 CE) were no longer played.


Cuju was not without influence, however. It appears to have had bearing on ball games in other parts of Asia – particularly Japan, whose version was called Kemari. Like Zhu Qiu, there was a marked field and the players tried to “keep the ball in the air as long as possible,” but Kemari appears to have been even more formal than its Chinese counterpart. Lacking any form of goal or net, the point was to string together a series of passes without letting the ball touch the ground. A distinct Japanese touch was the addition of trees to the playing field; players were even encouraged to bounce the ball off the trees.

A final similarity to cuju was its lasting influence. There was none. Kemari did not survive through the Meji era.


Kemari and cuju were popular during their day, but the cultures of Mesoamerica had ball games that were not only popular, but central to people’s daily lives. Some societies wagered land on the outcome of a game, others used these games as a substitute for war, and the Mayans even incorporated their ball game into a myth of the creation of the sun and moon.

These sports necessarily had diverse rules and features. It was the Aztecs, whose game was known as Tchatali, who added a type of goal (made of stone rings). Other versions resembled volleyball more than soccer, and some even used bats. But whatever their construction, these games were clearly omnipresent, as “over 1,500 ball courts have been unearthed, from tiny plain rectangular troughs in small villages (…) to the vast and elaborate stepped constructions of the great Mayan city of Chichen Itza.”

Perhaps the key component in the games’ popularity was the ball. Unlike the leather versions found in Europe and Asia, those in Mesoamerica were rubber, enabling a bounce that obviously enraptured the Americans and, later, fascinated the European explorers.

The games (particularly the ball) were impressive enough to merit Hernando Cortes taking entire teams to Spain for exhibitions, but, as a whole, the Spanish aristocracy attempted to suppress the games. They were certainly successful: “the introduction of Eurasian diseases into the continent, the enslavement of much of the population and the forced Christianization of those that survived were easily enough to destroy the societies and the beliefs that sustained the ball game.”


To find the true forefather of soccer, then, we are left with Classical Europe. As the archeological record shows, Grecian and Roman societies were obsessed with sport. One gave us the Olympics and the other “a five-storey, 50,000-seat (…) sports stadium.”

Nevertheless, neither society had a central, soccer-style sport.

In Greece, ball games were so far down the ladder of popularity that “no laurel wreath was ever awarded at Olympia for any ball game of any kind.” The Romans invented a number of games that resembled handball and rugby, but the most popular past times were those found in the Colosseum, where even the racing held an element of bloodlust.

The feudal, Christian Europe that followed Rome had no need for organized games of any sort, at least not the type that didn’t involve training for war. The necessity of the nobility providing an armored fighting force meant “there was no time, no utility and no glamour in such trite pastimes as ball games; the joust, the hunt, and the tournament were the only sports fit for a mounted warrior caste.”

The Petri dish necessary for soccer’s evolution would have to be those societies which avoided Roman and aristocratic meddling. Only Celtic cultures and the Western Fringe of Europe “eluded the control of Rome (and) absorbed Christianity without losing their pre-Christian festivities,” allowing their ball games to flourish and provide soccer’s genesis.

Some of the sports developed in these areas were “played between two parishes or villages, the ball carried across the open fields between them.” In Brittany, they played La Soule, in Wales – Knappen, in Florence – Calcio, but the first mention of “footballe” comes from Ireland.

And it was the Irish name that stuck. Football was eventually applied to many different ball games, but it was not until the 1800s that a version was codified into what we know today.

Next week, FFG will explore these Celtic games, the English versions they inspired, and how modern soccer emerged.

2 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Gringo Primal says:

    Did the author go into much detail about the Celtic games or how they developed?

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