While football games and soccer games have an avid fan base which flock to stadiums and fly in from around the world to catch final matches, there are plenty of ancient games that bear a striking resemblance to what we celebrate for fun nowadays. The following games all have a remarkable similarity to the game we call soccer (football), and were played for both recreational fun, as well as several having ceremonial significance.
1. Cuju – China
Declared by FIFA as the official ancient origin of football, and soccer, Cuju is a traditional Chinese game whose very name translated means kick (cu) ball (ju), which describes the nature of how it is played. In this game, players had to avoid using their hands to catch the ball, and instead, relied on using only their feet to kick it into the air repeatedly, and manoeuvre it around the court before kicking it through an opening into a net. An earlier iteration of Cuju is Tsu’Chu – with tsu meaning to kick the ball with feet, while chu means stuffed leather.
2. Fireball, Ancient American
A game that was played both for medicinal purposes, as well as for sporting fun, is the game of fireball, which is still observed today – and is a tradition of the Tuscarora Native Americans. In this game, a ball is made by wrapping numerous clothes and cords, finishing off with rope (or in present times, wire) so that it retains its ball-shape.
The ball, which is around the size of a soccer ball, is then coated in a flammable fluid by dipping it in until the entire surface is saturated, and it is set alight. Players then use this ball and play a form of soccer for an average of 20-minutes, or until the ball is consumed entirely in flame, with the winning team chosen by the one which has the most goals in this period. A similar game is played in Indonesia and is called Sepak Bola Api.
3. Kenmari, Japan
Like the Chinese game of Cuju, Kenmari is a Japanese ball game that was played using a small deerskin ball filled with grains during the Heian period.
It was considered to be a game for the aristocracy, and bears a similarity to hacky-sack and football, with an aim of keeping the ball up in the air as long as possible, with goals scored in. It was referred to in the classic story The Tale of Genji, dating to the 11th Century, as a ball game which was rather boisterous and rough.
4. Tlachtli, South America
An Aztec game that blurred the lines of ceremonial and sporting is Tlachtli, which was usually played on Temple grounds. In this game, two teams were chosen, and a small, natural rubber ball was used. No hands were to be used by players, leading to mainly heads and feet being used to keep the hard ball aloft.
Points were scored by getting the ball through a hoop on the opposite side of the field, and penalties were given to the players who touched the ball with their hands, or if a team inadvertently let the rubber ball hit the ground.
As to the rewards for winners and losers, it depends entirely on where the game took place and where to play decided their fate – as in some areas, winners were sacrificed to the Aztec gods as an example of humanities shining stars, while in other cultures the losers were the ones sacrificed for having been a disappointment.