Human desire to kick a ball dates back millennia. Images of Stone Age folk chasing after a spherical rock doesn’t feel too far from the realms of possibility – perhaps because a love of football often feels an innate part of the human psyche.
Whilst we can not be sure if prehistoric man was an avid soccer player; we do know that the dawn of something very close to football can be traced to ancient times. Various civilisations took part in games that vaguely or closely resemble the game we call football today. As far back as two thousand years ago, the Chinese were engaging in ‘cuju’, a sport whose name translates as ‘kickball.’ The ancient Greeks, too, enjoyed a game of ‘episkyros.’
Football as we know it, a formalised game with a clear format and set of rules, is a relatively modern phenomenon and yet its roots are deep and span epochs. But, who actually invented football?
Read on as we explore this complex question, finding out just where football began, and how it’s evolved into the sport we know today.
A myriad of games, similar to football, have been played throughout the ages. These have evolved over time into the sport we know as football.
It’s hard to verify specific dates due to lack of written records, but it appears this game was first played during the Han Dynasty between 25 – 206 AD. The name cuju means ‘kickball.’ Originally, it was devised as part of military training but over time became a sport that was played for enjoyment. FIFA itself recognises the significance of cuju and its familial relationship with football.
Two teams, consisting of between 12 -16 per side, played using a leather ball that was stuffed with feathers. As the game evolved, teams played with an air filled ball.
Goals were scored by kicking the ball through the ‘elegant eye,’ two bamboo posts with a stretched net between them. In the middle of the net was a hole. The hole, or ‘elegant eye’ was located in the centre of the field. The winner of cuju was the team that outscored their opponent. Both males and females engaged in the game of cuju with women often being regarded as the more skilful of the sexes.
During the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD), the game of cuju increased in popularity and shed its image as a military training exercise and became a source of entertainment for the masses. Professional cuju players, who were paid to teach and play, helped develop the sport commercially.
Poetry written down at the time suggests that cuju was regarded as more than just a game or a military training exercise, but as a contributing factor towards living a good life. What it probably can’t do though, is lay claim to being the birthplace of football. Whilst some of the rules are the same, there is much more that is different.
Episkyros, meaning ‘common ball,’ was a team sport that involved two, equal sided teams. And, whilst this game involved sides comparable in size to modern day football and the use of a ball – players could use both their hands and their feet to play.
Players would face each other. A white line in the centre of the field would separate the players and there would be another white line behind each team. The aim of the game was to get the ball behind the opposing team’s white line. This could be done by kicking or throwing the ball.
Due to the fact this sport was played thousands of years ago, not a great deal is known about the rules. But, sources do believe that teams could push members of the opposition over the line when they were holding the ball to prevent them from scoring.
Episkyros had a reputation for being hard-fought and violent. Whilst it shares many similarities with the structure of football, many believe its the forefather of sports such as rugby and American football.
Mob ball, also called folk football, was born in England. It was played by English peasants during the Middle Ages. Despite the fact this game often includes the familiar term, football in its title, it is not considered to be the birthplace of the game we now follow. If anything, it could be considered an early ancestor, but its rules and lack of marked out pitch do alienate it.
Large groups – anything between a couple of dozen or a few hundred – played in two teams. These teams used a ball but did not confine the game to a marked out area. Each team intended to capture the ball (a pig’s bladder), and take it back to their own village. Games could take all day and cover huge distances as each team endeavoured to score a goal, which could be set any number of miles apart. Propelling the ball forward with any part of the body was considered acceptable.
Mob ball often resulted in broken bones, fatigue, and even death of the players. The game itself would be initiated to settle disputes, fulfil rituals or even religious traditions. Such was the level of violence attributed to folk ball, it was banned by the Lord Mayor of London in 1314. Anyone found engaging in a game, punished by a stint in prison.
It’s only really in the last two hundred years that the game modernised from the Mob ball and ‘folk football’ days. At the start of the 19th century football was played out on the lawns of public schools. Each school having slightly differentiated rules, depending on the grounds available.
Games such as these share some characteristics of the modern day game, with cuju being football’s closest cousin. Each of these games prove that humankind has had a long-standing love affair with games that involve chasing a ball and scoring points against an opponent to win a game.
It’s true that many people believe that football originates from England. It’s also true that games such as folk football cement the concept that football originated in England. And, even though we know games like cuju were played millenia before, most people recognise that England holds a special place in the heart of football.
Although no one nation nor person can lay claim to inventing the game, there are figures in history who have played a significant role in formulating the rules, and of course, organising the sport into the modern day format.
Ebenezer Cobb Morley is widely recognised as being the founding father of football. This is because, in 1862, Morley created the Barnes Football Club in London. At this time most clubs played by their own rules, leading to intense negotiations before the start of each game. Fed up with compromising, Morley decided to write a set of rules used by a governing body that would manage all the English clubs. In 1863 the Football Association was formed, and with it the first ever set of rules unified rules.
Morley became the Football Association’s first secretary and at some point, its president. He also wrote the footballing handbook, Laws of the Game. And, in the main, these rules are still used throughout the entire world today.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘forgotten’ father of football, Charles Alcock helped broaden the sport. An avid sportsman himself, Alcock played rugby, cricket and football. Alcock was also a competent administrator. He produced an annual footballing magazine, promoting the sport to the masses. When he was only 27 years old, Alcock became the FA’s secretary, seven years after its inception. It was a voluntary post that he held for 25 years.
Alcock organised the first ever international games between England and Scotland. The first ever game between the two sides took place in March 1870 and ended in a 1-1 draw.
Just a year later, he established the first ever Football England Cup. Unbelievably, he not only captained his own team but his team finished the tournament as champions. It was Alcock too, who first held the FA Cup above his head, raising the trophy for the very first time.
Alcock continued to be a boundary pusher and it was he who proposed that football become a professional sport. And in 1885, football became a legalised profession.
Without influentials such as Morley and Alcock, who formalised the rules and established the first competitions, who knows where football would be today?
The Evolution of Football and The Global Spread of Football
At the same time as Alcock and Morley were formalising football, factors such as industrialisation and urbanisation contributed massively to the expansion of the game. More money in the back pockets of workers meant clubs began to monetise the game.
Just as football found itself developing legs in the UK, countries around the globe found their interest piqued in the sport too. Clubs formed in Denmark and Norway first, soon to be followed by Argentina, Chile, Switzerland and finally Italy. And in 1904, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) was born. At the same time FIFA was brought into being, football was made part of the Olympics, further propelling itself onto the world’s stage.
Now, football is considered the most popular sport on earth. According to FIFA, there are 210 men’s fully professional leagues and 187 women’s leagues. International competitions like the World Cup are watched avidly in every corner of the world – 1.5 billion viewers tuned into the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
Football has come a long way since its inception. From its ancient past where teams used a leather ball, filled with feathers, aiming at a central net, to swathes of villagers kicking around a pig’s bladder in the Middle Ages to the Qatar World Cup.
Today, it’s the global game, loved by billions and its future is just as bright as its past.
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