Off The Ball

An invention for all eternity

Match balls are lined up
© Getty Images

What do the words Episkyros, Harpastum and Popo have in common? They are all names for what many folk would call mankind's most important invention: the ball, or to be more precise, the football.

Kicking has been a natural instinct ever since humans walked on two legs. Stone Age people surely applied the boot to stones or bones, and the Chinese of 3,000 years ago certainly filled animal skins with hair or feathers for a game of Tsu chu, an early forerunner of the football we know today.

The Greeks called their football Episkyros, and the Romans called it Harpastum, although both games involved more carrying than kicking. The Japanese, Persians, Egyptians, Assyrians and North American natives all invented their own versions of the game. In Mexico, the Aztecs played Tlachtli with a stone or rock tightly encased in rubber.

Grapefruit, sealskin, stuffed kangaroo scrotums

What is thought to be the oldest specimen of a leather football was discovered in 1999 in the roof above Queen Mary's chamber in the Scottish castle of Stirling. The pig's bladder encased in grey leather is estimated to be 450 years old. Historians think the Queen may have initiated a game by throwing the leather from her balcony into the courtyard below, where servants and soldiers were eagerly awaiting the start of play. However, the game more likely resembled rugby than football. The very oldest balls still in existence today originated in Egypt two millennia before the Christian era, and were fashioned from wood, leather or papyrus.

You certainly cannot accuse our ball-manufacturing forebears of a lack of imagination when it came to new and innovative materials. Eskimos played with sealskin balls filled with moss or tufts of fur. In Hawaii, the Popo was fashioned from tightly-bound leaves or rags, the Fijians played with grapefruit, Australian Aborigines stuffed kangaroo scrotums with grass, and the Early Modern English favoured an old leather wine pouch packed with cork.

The next great leap forward for the sport was filling the case with air rather than solids. The vehicle for this was the pig's bladder, soon eclipsing all other forms of ball because of its excellent rebound properties. It would later evolve with the use of a rubber bladder encased in leather, held together by netting – which must have made heading the ball a painful and potentially damaging experience.

English origins

Since the 1970s, the leather has in fact had nothing to do with natural materials, as man-made plastics made the ball water-resistant, easier to direct and faster through the air.

So, who was the first actual footballer? It's impossible to answer the question with any degree of certainty, just as a precise chronology of the emergence of the game will forever be shrouded in doubt. All we can say is that the vases and frescos of antiquity confirm the existence of games between teams played with a spherical object.

We can certainly trace the modern game of football to England in the second half of the 19th century. Riding the coat-tails of fast-expanding companies and migrant workers in the productivity explosion caused by the industrial revolution, the codified game soon spread rapidly around the globe. The way in which football spread was also a reason why it so quickly supplanted many of the traditional ball games still being played around the world.


The precursors of the modern game differed in many ways, but they had certain fundamental attributes in common: they were played with one ball, and the objective was to propel it in a specific direction. Once the ball itself assumed the properties of bounce and rebound, it became the world’s most popular and successful item of sporting equipment.

"It's a sensual relationship towards an object which reacts differently to every touch of the foot, and always demands to be treated differently. That's what makes football so fascinating. In this game, nothing that happens is ever a copy of something that's happened before. Every second is unique," gifted former Germany star Gunter Netzer once mused.

'Thanks, sweet one' reads the inscription on a bronze ball displayed in the hallway at Alfredo di Stefano's home. You cannot help but be moved when a player kisses the ball after an important goal or victory. Pele, the greatest of them all, marked his thousandth goal with this very gesture. Indeed, Brazilians maintain a truly intimate relationship with the pill, referring to it lovingly as gorduchinha, a small, plump woman.

Millions of players all around the world feel a similar sense of affinity and gratitude towards the world's favourite plaything. As German footballing legend Uwe Seeler famously said: "The secret of football is the ball."

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