Playing with a ball is one of the oldest forms of human entertainment, with examples dating back thousands of years. It comes as no surprise then, that there are many countries who claim to have invented football. Here, we take a look at the best documented claimants to the title of inventor of the beautiful game.
One of, if not the oldest example of one of these forms of football originates in China. The game “Cuju”, which translates to “kick ball”, involved two teams of players, a ball, and two goal nets. Cuju also didn’t allow the use of hands on the ball.
You may think that this settles the argument on who invented football, however there were differences in Cuju to the modern game that we all enjoy today. First and foremost, the goal nets were suspended roughly 30 feet in the air, between two bamboo posts.
Cuju is the oldest known game to resemble modern day football, with descriptions of the game dating back to the Han Dynasty (202BC – 220AD). The game is thought to have originated from a military background, with a document dated around the 3rd century BC labelling it as an “exercise”.
It didn’t take long, however, for Cuju’s popularity within the upper classes to skyrocket, and matches would often be played in imperial courts. It is even said that Han Emperor Wu Di greatly enjoyed taking part in the sport.
A standardised set of rules was also created for the sport, as well as a special court called “ju chang” built especially for it. In its early form, a feather-stuffed leather ball was used. However, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) this was replaced with an air-filled leather ball with a two-layered hull.
During this time, two different types of goal post were introduced to the game. These were either goals at either end of the pitch, one per team, or one goal in the middle of the pitch. Either way, these were typically nets suspended between bamboo posts.
Cuju was so popular, that it was also played in other Asian countries such as Japan and Korea, even playing a part in influencing the development of the Japanese game Kemari.
Cuju continued to grow ever more popular under the Song Dynasty, and enjoyed more than 1,800 years in the spotlight before being neglected during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and slowly fading away.
The Ancient Greeks also have a reasonable argument that their game “Episkyros” is the origin of football. Episkyros involved two teams of players, typically between 12-14 each, most often men but occasionally women also. The use of hands was permitted, and the game was full contact and often violent, especially in the military state of Sparta.
The pitch had three lines – one across the middle of the park (called the skÿros), with the other two being behind each team, serving as goal lines. The aim of the game was to pass the ball between teammates until you pushed your opposition team behind their line, scoring a point.
Episkyros does share many similarities with modern day football, with the principle of getting the ball across the line using complex team-based tactics bearing clear resemblance. Although it is theorised that Episkyros was invented in Greece before Cuju in China, there is no direct record to confirm this.
It may also be argued that, as the handling of the ball was allowed for all players, the sport does not reflect modern football in quite the same way as the Chinese game.
Another example of a football-type game that could perhaps outdate even Cuju and Episkyros, was found documented in Egyptian paintings in ancient temples.
Unfortunately, there is little information on this game, with not so much as a name for it recorded. However, images of the paintings clearly show two teams of opposing players, each in team colours and wrestling for a ball of some kind.
England & Scotland
Now come the two man competitors for the title of who invented the beautiful game. England and Scotland. Both nations lay claim to have invented the modern game as we know it, with arguments for both sides as to why. So, let’s take a look at the history of each nation.
Football in England started around the 9th century as a game played in villages, where a pig’s bladder would be kicked around for fun. Fast forward to the 18th century and the game “folk ball” had been introduced, and taken up by many in the country.
Folk ball has been suggested as the early ancestor of modern day football, due to the fact that the game involved two teams whose aim it was to get the ball into goal areas to score a point. However, there was no limit to the amount of players on a side (often earning the game the title “mob football”) and the goals could be anywhere as 3 miles away from each other.
Other differences in the game included the use of handling and throwing the ball, both to pass and to score points in goal areas, as well as the apparent lack of any rules regarding contact and fouling. In essence, the game was to get the pig-bladder ball to the designated goal area by any means possible.
Folk football, in its original form, died out towards the end of the 18th century. It didn’t disappear completely, however, with the game being picked up and modernised in English public schools in the 19th century.
Rules of the game were now created, with high tackles banned and space restraints included. Hands were still allowed on the ball, but goalkeepers had now been brought into the game, as well as team tactics.
As the sport’s new form began to capture interest outside of public schools, football clubs began emerging. However, many incarnations of these clubs still more closely resembled rugby than modern day football.
However, the game gradually grew and evolved and in the year 1863, the Football Association (FA) was formed. The FA’s goal was to bring in uniform codes of rules across the country, and they began by outlawing handling the ball (with the exception of goalkeepers), as well as shin kicks and tripping, which were still allowed at that point.
The FA slowly began to itself grow, and the first FA Cup was held in 1872. Players had begun to be paid by their clubs in the 70s, as football started to look like a fully fledged industry. By 1887, 128 teams had joined the Football Association.
In 1888, the English Football League was formed by then Aston Villa director William McGregor, and was considered to be the world’s first official football league.
Now, this is where things get interesting. Scotland may well lay claim to the title of inventing the modern game of football. According to Ged O’Brien, who is the leading historian at the Scottish Football Museum at Hampden Park, the Scots have been playing the modern game of “pass and run” football for over 500 years!
Mr O’Brien said in an interview with The Scotsman that clan members played this form of football (in which handling the ball was disallowed) in churchyards in the north of Scotland. He states that these clans then brought the game down to Glasgow in the 1860s, when they founded Queen’s Park Football Club.
He said “The genius of Scots over the last 500 years and particularly the clan system is what gave us football.
“Football is Scotland’s game. They have been playing passing and running for hundreds and hundreds of years mostly in churchyards after the Reformation where they flattened all the gravestones.
“Glasgow became the 4th largest city in Europe and everybody from Scotland flooded in including all the guys from Aberdeenshire and Inverness with their passing and running game and they set up Queen’s Park Football Club.
“No matter where you go, if you are watching football you are watching a game that came out of Scotland 500 years ago and I think that’s the greatest thing that Scotland’s got.”
The Scottish Football Association was founded in 1873, and Mr O’Brien insists that it is they who then took the “pass and run” game to England, and then to the rest of the world.
Whichever nation was responsible (if not a bit of both), the game then spread to the Netherlands and Denmark in 1889, followed by Argentina and Chile in 1893, and then Switzerland, Belgium and Italy between 1895-1898.
The creation of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) in 1904 brought the world football associations together, and the first ever FIFA World Cup was born a quarter of a century later.
The rest, our good readers, is history.