Kick the ball: The sports in the Far East before modern soccer was invented

On 14th November, Marcello Lippi announced his resignation as manager of China after losing a World Cup qualifier against Syria. The 71-year-old Italian coach had initially been hailed by the Chinese sports media as something of a savior, but ended up getting desperate with his “unmotivated players” and for the second time leaving the country where people boast the longest history of playing football, but have never made a competitive men’s football team that is commensurate with its national strength.

According to FIFA, the earliest form of football called Cuju (“Cu” means “to kick” and “ju” refers to “a type of leather ball”) was practiced more than 2,300 years ago during the Warring States Period of China. At first this sport was used either as fitness training for the military cavaliers or as entertainment among royal families and upper classes in wealthy cities, but thanks to the economic development in Song Dynasty (960- 1279), it extended its popularity to every class of society after a long period of evolvement. The antagonistic matches were held in specific playgrounds called Ju Chang, where the first goals were created. They consisted of a small network attached to the end of two bamboo canes with a separation and were installed in the middle of the field being shared by the two teams. The player, according to one variation of this exercise, had to aim at the target by using his feet, chest, back and shoulders instead of his hands while trying to withstand the attacks of his opponents. Professional cuju players became quite popular, and female teams emerged as well. But the flourish didn’t last long, since Zhu Yuanzhang, the found emperor of the Ming Dynasty, started reigning China with extremely repressive policies, the sport had been severely forbidden and slowly faded away in history.

Cuju was introduced to Japan in the seventh century and was adapted into a non-competitive form called Kemari ( The characters for Kemari in Japanese are the same as Cuju in Chinese ). While people used an air-filled ball with a two-layered hull in China, the Japanese ball, mari, was made of deerskin and stuffed with barley grains to give it shape. Ancient noblemen played the games wearing their full flowing robes and hat and samurais took them as fitting tests. Nowadays, it is still practiced at several festivals every year by Shinto priests, whose other duties involve performing rituals and ceremonies and maintain approximately 80,000 shrines in Japan.

Another popular sport that can find its origins in cuju is Sepak Takraw, whose name conveys the same meaning as “kick the ball”. But differing from the Chinese and the Japanese versions, Southeast Asians make the ball with rattan. The sport resembles volleyball very much except that it only allows players to use their feet and head to touch the ball. This leads to some of the most amazing acrobatics ever seen on a court. In fact, Sepak Takraw is very much like a mix between volleyball, gymnastics, kung fu and circus acrobatics. Like other old games, many variations have been made to the sports, the earliest historical evidence shows the game was played in the 15th century’s Malacca Sultanate of Malaysia, after the Chinese admiral Zhenghe commanded his seven expeditionary treasure voyages to promote trade and cultures throughout the regions bordering the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433. The first versions of sepak takraw were not so much of a competition, but rather cooperative displays of skill designed to exercise the body, improve dexterity and loosen the limbs after long periods of sitting, standing or working. For example, in Myammar, people are proud of playing their traditional “chinlone(also known as caneball)” which has a performance-based style heavily influenced by Burmese martial arts and dance. By the 1940s, the net version of the game had spread throughout Southeast Asia, and formal rules were introduced. This sport became officially known as “sepak takraw”. Now the sports is without a doubt one of the Southeast Asia’s most popular sports, with Thailand and Malaysia being the dominant nations, and international play is governed by ISTAF, the International Sepak Takraw Federation which currently has 31 national associations under its membership.

From 30 November to 11 December 2019, the biennial regional multi-sport event Southeast Asian Games will be hosted by the Philippines. It would be a wonderful occasion for more and more foreigners to enjoy watching a variety of games which they probably had never heard of before, including the sepak takraw, which might share the same origin with modern football games.

Post-scriptum: In the host country the Philippines, the sepak takraw was also known as “sipa” It was the country’s national sport until it was replaced by arnis in 2009. The game is played on a court surface, about the size of a modern day tennis court, either indoors or outdoors – by 2 teams consisting of 1, 2 or 4 players on each side. The aim is to kick the ball (rattan, cane, and wicker) back and forth over a high-rise net in the middle of the court. In a variant called “Sipa Lambatan”, the Sipa ball is allowed to touch the ground. The sport requires speed, agility and extremely good ball control. 

(Photo credits to: http://en.chinaculture.org/chineseway/2014-06/19/content_539864.htm )

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