History of Football, Part 1: The Origins of Football

Stefan Vasilev@https://twitter.com/GoonersLoungeAnalyst IOctober 4, 2008

In order to really understand something, you must know its history.

This is one of the reasons I have decided to write a series of articles about the history of football. I will explore different times and periods in the development of football and I will leave it you to figure out how it all turned out to be the entertaining sport and way of life it is today.

The first article of the series is about the origins of football.

Contradictory to the widely-spread belief that football has originated in England, there have been games of ball, which were forerunners to the modern game, played as early as 2500 BC throughout the different civilizations that existed then.

Various artifacts found in Egyptian tombs signify the existence of ball games as early as 2500 BC. They were games that modern football has nothing in common with, except maybe the ball, but without their existence there might have not been any football nowadays.

Balls were usually made of linen, and for better bouncing sometimes they were made of animal sinew. Nevertheless, very little is known about the ball games which were played so long ago.

Around 2000 BC, in ancient Greece, a game of ball called Episkyros (also known as Phaindina) was invented. The game was played predominantly by men but also women took part in it sometimes. They all played naked.

The balls had low bouncing capability as they were made of linen and were wrapped in hair, sewn together. An interesting fact is that an image of a naked Greek athlete, playing early football, is engraved in the European Cup.

During the time of the Ts'in and Han Dynasties (255BC—220AD) in China, people played a game of ball called “tsu chu”. In this game, the main goal was to drive an animal-skin ball through holes in a net, stretched between two poles. Other similar games of ball were documented in many of the most powerful civilizations then: Egypt, Rome, and ancient Greece.

The meaning of football in those days was completely different to the one in modern football. During those times, “football” was used not only for entertaining purposes but also for different ones as well.

In Rome, for example, the Roman soldiers played a game called “Harpastum” (meaning a heavy hand-ball, rugby). It is believed that they have taken the idea from the Greek game, Phaindina, renaming it to Harpastum. They also put in some new rules to the game like using a smaller ball for instance.

The game involved a lot of heavy tackling, jumping, and running which created a lot of commotion. The Romans thought that this could help them in their battles and used this game as training.

Galen, a Roman physician and philosopher, described the game “harpastum” as “better than wrestling or running because it exercises every part of the body, takes up little time, and costs nothing." He also considered it "profitable training in strategy", and said that it could be "played with varying degrees of strenuousness."


It would not be wrong to suggest that the games that were played in the past drastically differ from the ones that have originated from them. In the past, the practical meaning of the games was much more important to the people than only the entertaining purpose of it. In some cases it even served as a religious ritual or a preparation for some important aspect of life.

An adequate example for such case is the game of “ball” that was played somewhere in Pre-Medieval Europe.

According to a legend, the people of one village would try to kick the “ball” (a skull in many cases) along a path to another village’s square. The opposing village would try to stop them and kick the ball to the first one’s square. Surely, it must have sparked a considerable amount of riots.

Another medieval custom was to play a game of ball just after the preparation for winter when the bladders of the animals that were killed in order to be stocked for the winter were taken and inflated with air, thus creating a ball of some sort. The only rule of the game was to keep the ball in the air, using hands as well as feet.

Next up, The History of Football, Part 2.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.