The Chinese did invent football

Fans around the world recognise that the English invented modern football, Association football. Yet many countries then claim to have invented football, in that they had an earlier version of the game, their own form of football. And it’s true, there were many earlier football games around the world, going back thousands of years.

Cuju, the ancient Chinese football game

So who has the best claim to have invented ‘football’? The English themselves have claimed this, with earlier versions of the game dating back to the Middle Ages. Complaints by London merchants led King Edward II of England to issue a proclamation banning football in London in 1314 because ‘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’. Playing football was seen as a distraction from practising archery, which was a mandatory occupation for every Englishman for much of the Middle Ages, because archers were so valuable in battle at this time. This led King Edward III and King Edward IV of England to ban football in 1349 and 1477 respectively. The latter stated that ‘No person shall practise . . . football and such games, but every strong and able-bodied person shall practise with the bow for the reason that the national defence depends upon such bowmen’.

Earlier football in England had no structure, no formal rules. Many other cultures had football going back at least a thousand years, such as the native peoples of North America, including the polar regions. When the British arrived in Australia, they found that the native people had their own football games, collectively called Marngrook. Norwegian Football Association visitors to the National Football Museum told me that the Vikings invented football, playing with the severed head of one of their enemies after a battle. South Korean FA visitors told me the same story a few weeks later. The ancient Romans and Greeks had ball games, but it is not clear that we can in any way call them a version of football. 

The Italians have a better claim for inventing football, as calcio fiorentino (also known as calcio storico, ‘historic football’), an early form of football that originated in 16th-century Italy. Once widely played, the sport is thought to have started in the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence. There it became known as the giuoco del calcio fiorentino (‘Florentine kick game’) or simply calcio, which is what Italians call Association football. Calcio was highly organised, with a set number of players, a marked pitch, and officials – many of the features of the modern football game.

But just as the ancient Chinese seem to have invented everything, so they also have the best claim to have first invented an organised football game. This has, quite rightly, been recognised by FIFA. There were different versions of this ancient football game, called cuju, and the game evolved over time, beginning in military exercise in the third century BC. Cuju had a delineated pitch, a set number of players, clear laws, and at one point a league with professional players. It appears to have lasted until the 16th century. There were at times a small number of women players. There is an excellent museum of cuju, the Linzi Football Museum, in Zibo, Shandong province, where the game originated. In 2015, Xi Jinping, the President of China, visited the National Football Museum for England, of which I was then the Chief Executive. My gift to the President was a copy of the first laws of Association football from 1863. His gift to me was a replica of a cuju ball, the first organised football game in the world …

For my full argument that the Chinese did invent football, please see my new book, What You Think You Know About Football is Wrong: The Global Game’s Greatest Myths and Untruths, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, UK.

Well I got as far as getting dressed ready to play! Cuju at the Linzi Football Museum, Zibo, China

Do we need a Premier League Hall of Fame?

The Premier League has announced that it is going to launch a Hall of Fame. This begs the question – why? There is already a Hall of Fame for English football, the National Football Museum Hall of Fame. As the Director of the National Football Museum, I set this up in 2002, to honour the all-time greats in English football. The Museum’s Hall of Fame is for the greats of the game from the beginning of Association football in 1863, up to today. Many great players from the Premier League era have therefore been inducted into the Museum’s Hall of Fame. The Premier League’s Hall of Fame will of course only cover from 1992 to the present day. When Premier League era players are inducted into the Museum’s Hall of Fame, they are being considered against the very best, the all-time legends of English football. The Selection Panel for the Museum’s Hall of Fame is the Hall of Famers themselves, led by the Museum’s President, Sir Bobby Charlton. Only the very best therefore are inducted, chosen by the greatest. So, there is effectively already a Hall of Fame for the Premier League, with the best of the Premier League era being judged by the same criteria as the all-time legends, like Best, Charles and Dalglish.

How the Premier League Hall of Fame inductees will be chosen and who will choose them is not clear. It appears fans will have some involvement, being invited to vote to help select the additional former players to join the Hall of Fame in 2020, after the first two have been revealed on March 19th.  The strength of the National Football Museum Hall of Fame, by comparison, is that it is chosen by the existing Hall of Famers, which gives it complete credibility. Who is going to disagree with the likes of Sir Bobby Charlton, Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Trevor Brooking? The great Bernhard ‘Bert’ Trautman, in receiving his award from Sir Bobby Charlton, said it was the “greatest moment of my life, to receive this accolade from my peers”. To be eligible for the Premier League Hall of Fame, players must be retired, and only a player’s Premier League career is considered in their candidacy. But what if they only played for one or two seasons in the Premier League?

Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton, the Vice President and President of the National Football Museum respectively

Is the Premier League Hall of Fame just to be for players, or will it also, like the National Football Museum Hall of Fame, include managers? Sir Bobby Robson, when inducted into the Museum’s manager’s category, said “I’m overwhelmed. This is a huge honour. To join such an illustrious group is fabulous.” The Premier League Hall of Fame will also of course lack the diversity of the Museum’s Hall of Fame, which includes women players, players with disabilities, and has a special awards section for those who have made an outstanding contribution for the good of the game. Niall Quinn was inducted in this category, for donating the £1 million raised by his testimonial game to charity. He said he was delighted, but recognised that unfortunately he would never be good enough to make it into the Hall of Fame for his playing abilities! He was a very good player – but not a great one. Halls of Fame are much more complicated to set up and run than it appears, as I have written in my forthcoming academic book, Sport and Museums: Curious Connections? (Routledge, 2020).

I am fully in favour of the concept of a Premier League Hall of Fame. But we need clarity on key questions, such as who will choose and how, and above all, how it will relate to the National Football Museum Hall of Fame.