Association football

Authored by: Charles Parrish , Hongxin Li , John Nauright

Routledge Handbook of Global Sport

Print publication date:  January  2020
Online publication date:  January  2020

Print ISBN: 9781138887237
eBook ISBN: 9781315714264
Adobe ISBN:


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Though the modern version of association football (soccer) originated in England during the mid-1800s, other games involving kicking a ball can be traced to earlier times. As framed by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, “In soccer, as in almost everything else, the Chinese were first.” 1 Indeed, the ancient Chinese ball game cuju featured kicking as a way of advancing a ball towards an opponent’s goals (there were multiple) at the opposite end of a defined field of play. First played during the fourth and third century BC, cuju rules became formalized during the Han dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD). It is believed the game initially served as a competitive form of military fitness training but later evolved into a leisure pursuit for the wealthy. 2 Citing the work of Hans Ulrich Vogel, Guttmann explains goalposts “through which the ball was kicked” were added during the Tang period (618–907) and women likely participated in cuju before the rise of Confucianism brought about its decline during the Qing dynasty. 3 Elsewhere in Asia the kick ball game sepak raga was practiced on the Malay Peninsula and kemari, similar to sepak raga in that participants tried to keep a ball aloft without using their hands or forearm, was an important activity for the Japanese high class during the medieval period. 4 In the Americas, natives practiced a variety of relay races, one of which required participants to kick a ball back and forth an established course over several days. 5 Likewise, Australian and Pacific Island natives also played kick ball games. Yet, as David Goldblatt asks with scepticism before embarking on his detailed global history of soccer, “Does that make these games and cultures the ancestors of football?” 6 Like Goldblatt, Alan Guttman acknowledged the similarities between association football and the ancient Chinese version but emphasizes modern football’s “direct antecedents can be traced back to medieval Europe, where folk football . . . was played in one form or another …” 7

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