The origins of football: a game born of savagery

The origins of football: a game born of savagery

Football, in the contemporary sense of the term, can be traced back no further than the mid-19th century, after it became, in 1863 to be precise, a game of clear structure. Though a primitive counterpart of the modern game, many of the stipulations outlined by the then-newborn Football Association remain in some form to this day – kickoffs following a goal, forbidden use of the hands and an early offside rule – any attacking player ahead of the ball was deemed offside, though this was quickly revised to closer resemble the rule today.

Hence, there can be little argument to oppose the suggestion that football began in England, at least as an organised sport. Yet football did not spontaneously erupt into existence in 1863, nor did it lay dormant for thousands of years – it has risen like magma through the cracks of time.

Its basic roots can be traced back as far as medieval, and even ancient times. That is not to say that the ball games played in these vast stretches of history can be considered anything more than rudimentary and even primal. As David Goldblatt explains in The Ball is Round, “The Ancients knew the ball, but football is born of modernity.” It is vital to differentiate football, with all its intricacies, from the disordered games adopted by cultures throughout history. It is equally important, however, not to discard their significance, for they highlight a human instinct; a fundamental enjoyment of kicking a ball. This is the underpinning link that binds the ancient game with the modern.

We must first travel, perhaps unexpectedly, to ancient China. During the Han Dynasty (206BC – AD220) a game called cuju, or kick-ball, became increasingly popularised. FIFA have officially acknowledged its status as the “very earliest form of the game for which there is scientific evidence”, and the game certainly has elements of football imprinted upon it. Pieces of silk were affixed to sticks of bamboo at either end of a pitch and the aim was to kick a leather ball filled with feathers or fur through small openings in the silk, much like a goal is scored in football.

Though the conduct of the game shares undeniable similarities with football, cuju’s significance also lies in its prolonged lifespan – no matter how closely related to the modern game, cuju would not have been awarded its title by FIFA had it faded into irrelevance. Instead, it existed, in some form, for over a thousand years, only expiring at the onset of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when the game became synonymous with corruption.

The game was initially favoured by the military, but over time extended to both commoner and emperor alike. This widespread popularity began to verge on obsession, sweeping the nation like a swarm of locusts; professional clubs were formed and spectators turned up in their thousands to see their favourite players. One account even describes the case of a man, Xiang Chu, who ignored his doctor’s advice not to play cuju, and died from a hernia as a result. Clearly, the frenzied mania of football today is not a unique phenomenon.

Yet Goldblatt remains unconvinced about FIFA’s assertion that cuju is directly related to football. Instead, he points to Marn Grook, a ball game played by indigenous Australians for thousands of years and which persisted well into the 19th century, as evidence that the Far East is not alone in its ancient footballing ancestry. Marn Grook is largely forgotten, yet is as old as cuju.

Both games also failed to extend beyond their native homelands, leading to Goldblatt’s conclusion that “neither can claim its [football’s] origins.” That is not to say that cuju and Marn Gook do not share similarities with football – that much is undeniable – but rather that they did not directly impact upon the development of football.

In contrast to cuju, the ancient Greek and Roman ball games were, despite the inclusion of kicking, also heavily reliant on the use of handling. This perhaps places them within the historical parameters of rugby rather than football, although these two sporting branches have often been one and the same throughout history. In spite of this, FIFA still acknowledges the ball games played by these civilisations as rudimentary forms of football.

Around 400BC, in ancient Greece, a marble slab was engraved; it depicted a man, leg bent, balancing a ball upon his thigh. He was, scholars deduced, playing Episkyros, a game in which both the hands and feet were permitted, with the aim of getting the ball over the opposition’s boundary lines. Though the similarities with football are slight, the startling modernity of the engraving has continually reaffirmed FIFA’s belief that Episkyros is an early form of the game, dating back as far as 2000BC.

The Romans drew greatly upon Episkyros in their ball game, Harpastum, which was primarily a game of trickery, requiring swift passing of the ball and dexterity in order to deceive the opposition. However, kicking a ball did not satisfy the innate desires of the Romans as bloody gladiatorial spectacles did – sport without killing was no sport at all. Those who played Harpastum did so in the monolithic shadow of the Colosseum.

The lack of impact these ball games made is not surprising. Though the Greeks and Romans were innovators in their own ways, they were shaped by the barbarism of the time in which they lived; a game without bloodshed would never thrive in this climate. Indeed, this fact is best highlighted in that one of the most well-known cases of Harpastum – from an account by Cicero – is of a man getting killed by a ball whilst having a shave at the barbers.

Strangely enough, we have yet to discuss the historical importance of Britain – this is because what is today the very epicentre of the modern game left little trace of ball games behind in ancient times. The Romans took Harpastum with them when they invaded England and consolidated power over the British tribes. Yet only after the Romans had departed Britain in the early fifth century did new ball games begin to materialise.

These unsystematic and frankly chaotic games, played throughout the medieval era, can be amalgamated into one term: ‘mob football’. There was no restriction on the number of players, or indeed the conduct of these players, and whole villages would often participate.

One of these games, Shrovetide football, simply consisted of kicking the ball – made of an inflated pig bladder – into the opposition’s church. Predictably, the outcome was mayhem, to the extent that numerous kings of England endeavoured to ban the games. Edward II described in 1314 a “great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls, from which many evils may arise” whilst Edward IV decreed in 1477 that “no person shall practise any unlawful games such as football” as it was not in the interest of the “national defence”. Their efforts to interrupt the spread amongst the population proved futile.

Whilst mob football was thriving amongst the lower classes of Britain, a more exclusive ball game was being played by the aristocrats of renaissance Italy, called Calcio. Though heavily reliant on the use of the hands – like HarpastumCalcio convinced the visiting British elite that their own ball games were not so distasteful. Backed by the aristocracy, football began to blossom at private educational institutions; simultaneously, rugby and football began to separate and form their own identities. For the first time, structure was imposing itself upon the game, and all that remained was the official codification, which eventually arrived, as we know, in 1863.

Calcio today translates directly to football in Italian, with its role in the development of the sport certainly crucial. Yet Calcio’s own existence was reliant on the Roman game which preceded it. Similarly, Harpastum was reliant on the Greek game Episkyros for inspiration. The links are clear; each game, no matter how fundamental, has led to the development of a new form of football. Throw in the ancient games of the Far East and Australia, though not direct ancestors of football, and the significance of these historical pastimes becomes even greater. All across the globe and for thousands of years, primitive cultures have engaged in games with similarities to modern football.

So yes, “football is born of modernity”, but it is also born of disorder and savagery – these were the hallmarks of the ancient and medieval games through which it progressed. And even while football has developed alongside human advancement to become the complex sport it is today, one thing has never changed and never will change; the unrelenting love of kicking a ball.

By Euan Rice-Coates @EuanRiceCoates

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