Who invented soccer? It’s a debate that has raged among aficionados of the beautiful game for years. Whilst the rules for the modern-day format are less than 200 years old, the origins of football are far older. And according to FIFA President Sepp Blatter – a dubious but influential authority – it is China that can lay claim to its invention, with Linzi, the capital of the ancient Chinese state of Qi, the designated birthplace. Though the Chinese Football Association was only founded in 1924, centuries before, the nation had a thriving sport going by the name of cuju (蹴鞠) – which literally translates as “kick ball with foot.”
Evidence, revealed in ancient poetry and two hefty historical tomes, describes a game being played as early as the Warring States Period (476 – 221 B.C.) that has striking resemblances to the modern game. Two opposing teams kicking a ball (stuffed with feathers and hair) around a pitch, trying to keep possession and attempting to score before the other team dispossessed them. Sound familiar? Even referees were employed to officiate the strict no hand-ball policy. Though it was still a far cry from the present-day counterpart (the traditional flogging of the losing team’s captain might seem a little excessive in the Barclays Premier League), the fundamentals were certainly there.
Cuju was as popular then as football is now, transcending both class and gender. At first, during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.), it was considered an effective military exercise for keeping soldiers fit, teaching the intricacies of defense versus attack, and getting rid of numb legs after a hard day’s riding. It soon caught the attention of the upper classes and game were staged as entertainment during imperial banquets. Emperors were so taken with the sport that being a skillful cuju player could even be a ticket to the good life. A young man named Gao Qui, for example, is reported to have asked to play for a future emperor in the 12th century, and his fancy footwork impressed so much that he was appointed to a string of increasingly important jobs in the army, eventually rising to defense chief. It was an early victory for feminism too, as the traditional moral concepts restricting Chinese women were relaxed for cuju. Some became professional and, according to records, a 17-year-old girl once beat a team of soldiers.
The game evolved throughout consecutive dynasties and even spread to Japan, Korea and Vietnam. But concluding that cuju was the original form of soccer is not so straight-forward. It ultimately faded during the Ming Dynasty (1368 A.D. – 1644 A.D.), leaving a tenuous connection to the modern game. Some historians claim the basic idea traveled to the West via the Silk Road, spreading out to Egypt, Rome, France and the rest of the world. Cynics, however, are quick to point out that kicking a ball with your feet is not a particularly groundbreaking concept, with other versions played by ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks, and the Romans. FIFA sounds pretty convinced of China’s claim though, explaining on their website that cuju is “The very earliest form of the game for which there is scientific evidence.” This provocative statement should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt though, as it was announced at the Third Football Expo in Beijing to a lucrative and football-mad market.
It seems the origin of football is a sensitive subject that will receive continued debate for years to come. But even if China can’t prove soccer originated in China, it still has plenty more sports to lay claim to. The 10th century stick-and-ball sport chuiwan (捶丸) has been declared by some historians to be an early incarnation of golf, whilst jiju (击鞠), the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 A.D.) pastime involving horses and mallets, developed into polo.
Photo by Patrick Keogh on Flickr