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Published:June 8th, 2008 18:00 EST
Mysteries of History: "If it moves, kick it. If it doesn't move, kick it until it does"

Mysteries of History: "If it moves, kick it. If it doesn't move, kick it until it does"

By Krzys Wasilewski

*Audio by Kristin Marzec

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Soon after, He created soccer.

This analogy between religion and soccer is hardly a coincidence. For hundreds of millions of people around the world, soccer - or football as it is called everywhere but the United States - is, if not more, than at least as important as their faith. Throughout the decades and centuries, soccer has been the reason of both spiritual exhilaration and suicides, peaceful coexistence and wars.

Much to the annoyance of the proud British who boast that they created soccer, the Chinese had been playing a similar game almost 5,000 years ago. Usually performed on the emperor`s birthday, Tsu-Chu, which in plain English means "to kick the ball with feet," was immensely popular all over the vast Chinese empire and even used as a recommended exercise for soldiers. According to, the goal of Tsu-Chu was - surprise, surprise - "to kick a [leather] ball through an opening into a small net." To achieve this, players were allowed to use any of their parts, except hands.

A more sophisticated game - Kintari - was invented in Japan. Some 300 years after the birth of Christ, when Asia was still a mystery for the western civilization, a ball made of deerskin and stuffed with sawdust was kicked by a group of eight or so aristocrats. Scattered around the field called Kikutsubo, the players had to pass the ball to one another so it did not touch the ground. One source claims that a team of one Japanese emperor held a record of over 1,000 kicks before the ball finally fell. For mesmerized predecessors of modern commentators, the ball seemed "suspended, hanging in the sky."

What Asians found interesting, the English regarded as awfully boring. Kicking a ball  in a square field was not for them; instead, the proud sons of Albion demanded action and blood. Thus so-called mob football was introduced to the British Islands, a game that would destroy a number of villages, kill hundreds of players and almost spark an anti-monarchy rebellion. The main idea of mob football was to place a ball - made of animal skin (a legend has it that the first game was played with the severed head of a Danish prince) - in the center of an enemy village.

As there were no rules, mob football games were usually followed by numerous casualties and damaged barns and shacks. "Two instances dating from 1280 and 1312 describe deadly encounters caused by playing with a sheathed knife on the belt," reports Such anarchy could not stand in the monarchy and on April 13, 1314, King Edward II banned the game explaining his decision by the negative impact that mob football had on the country`s trade. Ruling dynasties changed, but the ban remained - however, to no effect over ardent players who continued to perform it.

Not until the end of the nineteenth century, did soccer cease to be barbarian entertainment. In 1863, the Football Association was established in England with the intention of purging the game of violence and standardizing the rules. The same year, it divided the sport into rugby (where players were allowed to carry the ball in their hands) and association football, which soon evolved into a game that Americans call now soccer and the rest of the world regard as the only acceptable version of football. The first official international match was played between England and Scotland and ended in a goalless draw.

With association football came new words. Surprisingly for Americans and no less astoundingly for Europeans, "soccer" was coined by the British who now shiver at the very sound of this word. One source says that we owe the invention of "soccer" to an unnamed British student who, being asked if he wanted to play "rugger" (rugby), replied that he preferred "soccer." The Online Etymology Dictionary dates the term back to 1889 and provides its synonyms, which the dictionary states were first used in university slang: socker (1891) and socca (1889).

Among the first countries that adopted association football - or soccer - was the United States. Although most contemporary Americans regard it as a sport for sissies, who are too weak to play the football, their predecessors had quite a different opinion. The first soccer game in the US was recorded on November 6, 1869, when Princeton fought Rutgers. Both teams played their best, being aware of the match`s historical importance; even the faculty let emotions win them over, with one Rutgers professor shouting at a Princeton player, Big Mike, such obscenities as: "You will come to no Christian end!"

Eventually, Rutgers defeated Princeton 6:4.

Despite early success, soccer had not caught on in the United States. The ocean apart from the Football Association in London, Americans established their own rules, which differed significantly from those in Europe - giving birth to what is now football, or American football as it is called elsewhere. In his 1921 The American Language, H.L. Mencken noted: "Finally, there is soccer, a form of football that is still relatively little known in the United States. What we call simply football is Rugby or Rugger to the Englishman."

Meanwhile, the first soccer world championship took place in 1930 in Uruguay where the host team defeated the other 12 representations and won the gold World Cup. World War II made it impossible to hold subsequent tournaments and the world championship would not reassemble until 1950.

By no means mob football, modern soccer can still spark casualties. On June 8, 1969, the El Salvador soccer team arrived in Honduras, and the following day, they played a match that was to decide which country would qualify to the 1970 Soccer World Cup. The match, which was very tough with both teams playing brutal soccer, eventually gave the 1:0 victory to Honduras. An 18-year-old Salvadorian girl, who had been watching the match on TV, shot herself as a sign of protest against the, in her opinion, unfair result.

Her funeral was a national event, with the president and all ministers attending the ceremony. As it soon turned out, El Salvador and Honduras ended up with the same amount of points, so a re-match was called - this time in the capital of the former, San Salvador. People demanded blood and got it. El Salvador won 3:0 in a rigged game while the armed audience forced the guest team and its supporters to flee to the border as soon as the referee whistled the end of the match. The next day, the two countries were at war. One hundred hours later, it was all over with 6,000 dead, 15,000 injured and tens of thousands made homeless.

For the majority of sports fans, soccer is something more than a game. It is no exaggeration to say that soccer has more followers than the Roman Catholic Church, and contrary to this greatest Christian denomination, it is gaining more and more believers. One English soccer manager was dead serious when he said: "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I`m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."

That`s all for today. Next Sunday on Mysteries of History we will talk about Cesare Borgia, the man whose life inspired Niccolo Machiavelli to write his monumental treatise The Prince.

Stay in touch and remember that you make history every day!

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