Football is a global phenomenon that has changed lives, united cultures and bridged differences in ways we cannot fully comprehend.
It has often come to the rescue either in the form of a healthy distraction, or as a medium for exchanging ideals whenever society has been threatened by irrationality and wanton insularity.
Throughout the course of modern history, our beautiful game has played a pivotal role in the moral edification of the masses. Understandably, the sport’s popularity has also been misemployed to propagate right-wing nationalism, ethnocentrism and hateful xenophobia.
For example, 19th century Christians in England saw potential in the congruent effect football had on the younger generation and decided to promote the sport believing that a healthy body, breeds a healthy mind; whereas right-wing politicians such as Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco politicised it to inculcate an attitude of nationalism that spread like wildfire among the masses.
But where does this larger-than-life sport’s origins lie? It’s a debate that has been fought over for decades. While the English are correct in promulgating that the modern form of the sport has its roots in Medieval England, yet a form of football called ‘kick-ball’ has existed throughout the course of history.
In this series, I have tried to chronicle the origins of the same sport that sprouted in one form or another in a vastly different era and a vastly different culture.
1600 BC: Meso-America
Meso-America is a region in modern day Central and parts of South America that stretched from Mexico to northern Costa Rica.
The Olmecs, the first major civilisation to emerge out of Mexico designed a sport that was played with a roughly spherical object. Pre-Columbian peoples practiced the sport almost a millennium before the first Olympic Games.
It drew huge crowds as the sport held more religious significance than recreational value.
Played in I-shaped courts, the game featured two individuals or two teams with equal number of players. The objective was to keep the ball in the air and try to put it in the other end of the court without the usage of hands.
The size of these courts varied from region to region. For instance, the Classic Maya city of Chichen Itza hosted the largest court that measured 96.5 metres (315 feet) in length and 30 metres (98 feet) in breadth while a court at Tikal, an ancient city in Guatemala featured a court that was in comparison smaller than a tennis court.
The Mayans called the sport Pok a Tok. The Aztecs later named it Tlachtli.
Its deeply religious significance can be found in Meso-American mythology. According to legend, Mayan gods Hun Hunahpú and Vucub Hunahpú angered the gods of the underworld with their noisy playing.
The pair were tricked into descending into the underworld where they were challenged to a game of ‘kick ball’ with a condition that Hun Hunahpú would have to cut off his head upon losing.
Inevitably, he did and this isolated act turned into religious practice.
More often than not, as a custom, the losing team’s captain was offered to the gods as sacrifice. And you thought captains of today were under pressure.
‘Kick ball’ in some cases also served the purpose of divination. The results of a particular game were studied, analysed and interpreted to predict the future, much like pundits do today in their post-match analogy of a game.
As for the very nature of the game, it was brutal. Fast paced and played bare footed, players often collided with stone walls of the court in their attempts to keep the ball in play resulting in a lot of bloodshed and fractured bones.
The players of this sport have often been depicted in Meso-American art. Not unlike modern day football, these players are depicted as wearing protective gear like belts, padding for knees, elbows, hips and shins.
The ball, a weapon in itself, was made from solid rubber and ranged from 10 cm to 30 cm in diameter weighing 500g to 3.5kg.
The heavy ball making contact with a human torso could quite easily induce internal bleeding and result in a very slow and painful death.
Several of these rubber balls were discovered perfectly preserved in the bogs of El Manatí near the Olmec city of San Lorenzo. These balls are reported to be dated from 1600 BC to 1200 BC.
Thousands of rubber balls were imported annually into the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, emphasising the popularity of ‘kick ball’ among the masses. Around 1,300 courts have been discovered around Meso-American cities.
The origin of football has always proved to be a recurring motif for contentious debate. Modern day football may not be the direct descendant of the sport played by the great Mayan and Aztec civilisations.
There is also a distinct possibility that the inventor of football as we know it today may not have had any notion that a sport called ‘kick-ball’ that is so staggeringly similar and parallel to his own creation even existed.
Or, it may have drawn inspiration from the ancient Greek ball sport Episkyros or a very similar sport the Romans called Harpastum.
Yet, we can speculate, examine and attempt to narrow it down to only a handful of such probabilities. As the most culturally uniting sport in the history of mankind, football cannot be restricted to one particular culture or one particular region.
As is the nature of life, its most archaic form may have originated simultaneously all around the globe.