Digital Exhibition

Origins: Pre-Histories of Football

The exhibition

Association football, as we call it today, was born in London in 1863. Yet the question of what influenced the development and codification of the world’s biggest and most important sport is one that fascinates historians and football fans alike. What cultural traditions led certain people to “play” different ball games and others to watch them?

Even though there is no indication of any direct link between these forerunners and the modern game, these pastimes demonstrate humanity’s innate predisposition to play with a ball, whether for social interaction, military training, as part of a ritual ceremony or simply as a way of entertaining themselves.

The chapters

“Origins: Pre-Histories of Football” explores four different ball games from different eras and geographical regions. The first chapter focuses on the Japanese game Kemari.

The following three chapters shine a light on the Meso-American ball games, the ball games of Ancient Greece and Rome and on Cuju in China.

To the chapters

Live talk webinars

Between June and September 2022, we hosted four exciting one-hour live talk webinars with international experts. One on each chapter of the exhibition.

Rewatch the complete live talk webinars for free.

To the live talk webinars

The chapters of the exhibition

Chapter 1

Kemari in Japan

Kemari is a highly ritualised game indigenous to Japan that has been played for over a millennium. It is one of just two ancient ball games, along with Cuju from China, that we know were played exclusively with the feet.

The game of kemari enjoyed a high social status, the legacy of which is a historical record that has been passed down through the centuries. It is the only ancient ball game for which we have accurate details as to its exact nature.

Chapter 2

Meso-American ball games

The history of ball games in Meso-America – a cultural region that encompasses parts of modern-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica – stretches back millennia.

Such games were fundamental for the political, social and ritual life of the communities and empires that flourished in the region. Anthropologist Paul Kirchhoff, who coined the term “Meso-America”, included the playing of ball games in his list of traits that defined the Meso-American cultural tradition.

Chapter 3

Greco-Roman ball games

Greece and Rome set new standards for organized sport, giving the world the Olympic Games and gladiatorial contests. Ball sports were relegated to the margins in these heroic times, but there is plenty of evidence that they were a part of everyday life.

Episkyros, phaeninda, aporraxis and ourania, were the major ancient Greek ball games; while harpastum, trigon, follis, paganice and arenata are known to have been played in the Roman world.

Chapter 4

Cuju in China

The Chinese ball game Cuju was played in a wide variety of forms and locations for almost 2,000 years. Cuju changed and developed over time, its development being spurred by technological developments and cultural changes.

Many different versions of Cuju co-existed alongside each other. It could be played competitively or co-operatively, in a team or individually, for victory or for aesthetic reasons. Despite being played little today, Cuju’s vibrant history lives on, especially in relation to the founding myths of the Chinese nation and people.



Live talk webinars - The Origins of Football

Experts from around the world share and discuss their knowledge about the origins of the beautiful game in a series of live webinars. Gain unique insights, inspiration and alternative perspectives.

Rewatch the webinar


In search of the origins of football in China: Comparing the cultural impact of cuju and modern football.


Rewatch the webinar


A beautiful game full of art und ritual: Why did kemari not stand the test of time?


Rewatch the webinar

Greco-Roman ball games

Olympic Games and the Colosseum in ancient times: No place for ball games!


Rewatch the webinar

Meso-American ball games

Using both archaeology and contemporary sport to understand the Meso-American ball games.