The Dark Ages
However, the first indications of an early formal form of football date back 3,000 years to Ancient China. A game played with a ball of animal skins stuffed with hair or feathers was kicked between poles some 10 metres high and was most likely used for military training. By 50AD, the game was named “tsu chu” (or “cuju”) and early records compare the round ball and square goal to Yin and Yang, the ancient symbols of harmony.
The Greeks and Romans were the greatest exponents of games. They built arenas all over their empires and staged everything from chariot racing to gladiatorial combats where serious injury or death were taken as a matter of course and all part of enjoyable entertainment. Kicking a ball seems tame in comparison, nevertheless there are indications that they did play a type of football, too. In the case of the Greeks, it was called “episkyros” and the Romans had a game called “harpastum” – but both were mainly ball-carrying games.
“Harpastum” is taken from the Greek word “Harpazein”, which means “to seize”. The ball was small, about the size of a grapefruit, and hard, not least because it was stuffed with sand. Play would take place on a marked-out pitch, with each player taking a position on the field, just as they do today. Teams probably consisted of 12 players. The game itself was more like rugby with more throwing than kicking and it required considerable agility. The rules, it appears, involved a sort of inverted form of football, with the objective being to keep the ball behind one’s own half of the centre line and not allow the opponents to get it. Goals were scored if the ball hit the ground.
The Vikings are reported to have kicked the heads of their enemies about, which was not very pleasant behaviour, but the somewhat more civilised societies such as the Japanese, Persians, Egyptians, Assyrians and North American Indians all played forms of ball games. The Aztecs in Mexico developed their own kicking game with a stone covered in a thick coating of gum. The game known as “tlatchi” was played between two seven-man teams and it was a very important cultural activity. Games were even played in purpose-built stadiums and huge sums of money were staked on the results.
The whole essence of football is its most simple implement – the ball. And it has to be a particular type of ball, too, with the ability to fly through the air as directed by the player and – most importantly – to bounce predictably. It was really only the development of the bouncing ball and the sheer fun of kicking it in a wide variety of ways that made football the world’s most popular and successful game.