The history of football

National Archaeological Museum [Public domain]

We all know football as a sport, but how did it start? The modern form was invented in the United Kingdom, but there are many references to playing a similar game in historical sources well before the 19th century.

Cuju. AnonymousUnknown author [Public domain].

Cuju – the oldest game

The oldest form of the football game is the Chinese Cuju or Ts’u-chü. This involved kicking a ball into a net without using the hands. It is mentioned in historical sources dating from the Han Dynasty around 206-100 BC. The game first gained popularity in the army as a form of physical training, and later spread to the elite and later still to ordinary citizens.

Children playing football. Su Hanchen [Public domain].

Ball games of the Ancient Greeks and Romans

The Ancient Greeks were familiar with ball games: phaininda and episkyros. The UEFA European Championship Cup bears an image of a man playing episkyros. This is based on an image on a vase which can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. In 228 AD the Roman writer Athenaeus described a game called harpastum. This seems to have been more like a combination of volleyball, wrestling and rugby, involving far more bodily contact and the use of hands.

Man playing episkyros. National Archaeological Museum [Public domain].

The oldest football

In medieval England the earliest references come from the eighth century, when people played football with a pig’s bladder. This football game was forbidden in the thirteenth century and the reason given was that people were becoming too distracted by it (nothing changes!). The game continued to be played by the working classes in England.

Football still had no real rules and often led to quarrels and fighting. In 1830 the government introduced the Highways Act, which among other things gave the police the power to fine people playing football on the highway. From the middle of the nineteenth century the sport developed in schools into the game which we know today.

Aston Villa 1896-97. Here [Public domain].


Text                      Nadine Lemmers

Translation         Alun Harvey


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