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