Throughout the history of mankind the urge to kick at stones and other such objects is thought to have led to many early activities involving kicking and/or running with a ball. Football-like games predate recorded history in all parts of the world, though the earliest forms of football are not known.
Documented evidence of what is possibly the oldest organized activity resembling football can be found in a Chinese military manual written during the Han Dynasty in about 2nd century BC.
It describes a practice known as cuju (Traditional Chinese: 蹴鞠; Simplified Chinese: 蹴踘; Pinyin: cù jū) which involved kicking a leather ball through a hole in a piece of silk cloth strung between two 30 foot poles. Another Asian ball-kicking game, which may have been influenced by cuju, is kemari. This is known to have been played within the Japanese imperial court in Kyoto from about 600 AD. In kemari several individuals stand in a circle and kick a ball to each other, trying not to let the ball drop to the ground (much like keepie uppie). The game survived through many years but appears to have died out sometime before the mid 19th century. In 1903 in a bid to restore ancient traditions the game was revived and it can now be seen played for the benefit of tourists at a number of festivals.
The Greeks and Romans are known to have played many ball games some of which involved the use of the feet. The Roman writer Cicero describes the case of a man who was killed whilst having a shave when a ball was kicked into a barbers shop. The Roman game of Harpastum is believed to have been adapted from a team game known as “επισκυρος” (episkyros) or pheninda that is mentioned by Greek playwright, Antiphanes (388-311BC) and later referred to by Clement of Alexandria. The game appears to have vaguely resembled rugby.
There are a number of less well-documented references to prehistoric, ancient or traditional ball games, played by indigenous peoples all around the world. For example, William Strachey of the Jamestown settlement is the first to record a game played by the Native Americans called Pahsaheman, in 1610. In Victoria, Australia, Indigenous Australians played a game called Marn Grook. An 1878 book by Robert Brough-Smyth, The Aborigines of Victoria, quotes a man called Richard Thomas as saying, in about 1841, that he had witnessed Aboriginal people playing the game: “Mr Thomas describes how the foremost player will drop kick a ball made from the skin of a possum and how other players leap into the air in order to catch it.” It is widely believed that Marn Grook had an influence on the development of Australian Rules Football (see below). In northern Canada and/or Alaska, the Inuit (Eskimos) played a game on ice called Aqsaqtuk. Each match began with two teams facing each other in parallel lines, before attempting to kick the ball through each other team’s line and then at a goal. The ancient Aztec game of ollamalitzli also involved kicking a ball, but it generally had more similarities to basketball.
These games and others may well far back into antiquity and have influenced football over the centuries. However, the route towards the development of modern football games appears to lie in Western Europe and particularly England.
The Middle Ages saw a huge rise in popularity of annual Shrovetide football matches throughout Europe, particularly in England. The game played in England at this time may have arrived with the Roman occupation, but there is little evidence to indicate this. Reports of a game played in Brittany, Normandy and Picardy, known as Choule or Soule, suggest that some of these football games could have arrived in England as a result of the Norman Conquest.
These archaic forms of football would be played between neighbouring towns and villages, involving an unlimited number of players on opposing teams, who would clash in a heaving mass of people struggling to drag an inflated pig’s bladder by any means possible to markers at each end of a town (sometimes instead of markers, the teams would attempt to kick the bladder into the balcony of the opponents’ church). A legend that these games in England evolved from a more ancient and bloody ritual of kicking the “Dane’s head” is unlikely to be true. Shrovetide games survive in a number of English towns (see below).
The first description of football in England was given by William FitzStephen (c. 1174-1183). He described the activities of London youths during the annual festival of Shrove Tuesday.
- After lunch all the youth of the city go out into the fields to take part in a ball game. The students of each school have their own ball; the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls. Older citizens, fathers, and wealthy citizens come on horseback to watch their juniors competing, and to relive their own youth vicariously: you can see their inner passions aroused as they watch the action and get caught up in the fun being had by the carefree adolescents.
Most of the early references to the game speak simply of “ball play” or “playing at ball”. This reinforces the idea that the games played at the time did not necessarily involve a ball being kicked. The first clear reference to football was not recorded until 1409, when King Henry IV of England issued an edict to ban it. In 1424, King James I of Scotland also attempted to ban the playing of “fute-ball”. However, the first clear reference to a ball being used did not occur until 1486.
The first reference to football in Ireland occurs in the Statute of Galway of 1527, which allowed the playing of football and archery but banned “hokie’ — the hurling of a little ball with sticks or staves” as well as other sports. (The earliest recorded football match in Ireland was one between Louth and Meath, at Slane, in 1712.)
In the 16th century, the city of Florence celebrated the period between Epiphany and Lent by playing a game known as “o Calcio storico” (“kickball in costume”) in the Piazza della Novere or the Piazza Santa Croce. The young aristocrats of the city would dress up in fine silk costumes and embroil themselves in a violent form of football. For example, calcio players could punch, shoulder charge, and kick opponents. Blows below the belt were allowed. The game is said to have originated as a military training exercise. The most famous match took place on February 17, 1530. While the troops of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor were besieging Florence, a game of calcio was organised as a show of defiance. In 1580, Count Giovanni de’ Bardi di Vernio wrote Discorso sopra ‘l giuoco del Calcio Fiorentino. This is sometimes credited as the earliest known published rules of any football game. The game was not played between January 1739 and May 1930, when it was revived to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the match mentioned above. Calcio is still played, mostly as a tourist attraction.
Official disapproval and attempts to ban football
Numerous attempts have been made to ban football games, particularly the most rowdy and disruptive forms. This was especially the case in England and in other parts of Europe, during the Middle Ages and early modern period. Between 1324 and 1667, football was banned in England alone by more than 30 royal and local laws. The need to repeatedly proclaim such laws demonstrated the difficulty in enforcing bans on popular games.
King Edward II was so troubled by the unruliness of football in London that on April 13, 1314 he issued a proclamation banning it: “Forasmuch as there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls from which many evils may arise which God forbid; we command and forbid, on behalf of the King, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future.”
The reasons for the ban by Edward III, on June 12, 1349, were explicit: football and other recreations distracted the populace from practicing archery, which was necessary for war.
By 1608, the local authorities in Manchester were complaining that: “With the ffotebale…[there] hath beene greate disorder in our towne of Manchester we are told, and glasse windowes broken yearlye and spoyled by a companie of lewd and disordered persons …” That same year, the word “football” was used disapprovingly by William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s play King Lear contains the line: “Nor tripped neither, you base football player” (Act I Scene 4). Shakespeare also mentions the game in A Comedy of Errors (Act II Scene 1):
- Am I so round with you as you with me,
- That like a football you do spurn me thus?
- You spurn me hence, and he will spurn me hither:
- If I last in this service, you must case me in leather.
“Spurn” literally means to kick away, thus implying that the game involved kicking a ball between players.
However the game of hurling (where players use a curved wooden stick to play a small ball) played in Ireland, was considered so violent that the Galway City authorities would rather the people played football. In 1527 they stated “At no time to use ne occupy ye hurling of ye litill balle with the hookie sticks or staves, nor use no hand balle to play without the walls, but only the great foot balle.”