As it's played today, the game dates back to 1863, when the English Football Association set down a series of rules that became the standard. Of course, its roots are way, way deeper than that.

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As it's played today, the game dates back to 1863, when the English Football Association set down a series of rules that became the standard. Of course, its roots are way, way deeper than that.

Soccer's predecessors date back to 1,500 B.C. (the Olmecs) and the Roman Empire. They played a game called harpastum that resembled soccer in many ways -- lots of kicking, lots of hooliganism -- but used a much smaller, sponge-filled leather ball, about the size of a softball.

The Olmecs notwithstanding, a few years ago FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, declared China to be the game's birthplace on the basis of a game called tsu chu that started there in the early 200s B.C. Tsu chu, which literally means "kick ball," was often used to train soldiers; it was hugely popular among the military and the upper crust until it fell out of favor during the Qing Dynasty, in the mid-1600s.

Soccer first appeared in Medieval Europe in the form of "mob football" -- a sort of outlaw version of the game in which anything went except killing another player, and if that did happen, well, no sense crying over spilled blood. (Reports that the game was first played with the severed head of an invading Danish king, however, are not true. Probably.)

Mob football makes at least three highbrow appearances in literature of the time:

In the World's First Royal Decree

On April 13, 1314, Edward II proclaimed that "hustling over large balls" would no longer be allowed because it was scaring the local merchants (and, more important, their customers).

In the Canterbury Tales

Chaucer, writing sometime after 1380, describes a man thus: "He rolleth under foot as doth a ball."

In Shakespeare

This one's from the Comedy of Errors: "Am I so round with you, as you with me, That like a foot-ball you doe spurne me thus: You spurne me hence, and he will spurne me hither, If I last in this service, you must case me in leather."

In the 16th century, English schools realized that their students were going to play this disreputable game whether it was allowed or not -- so they cleaned up the game a little, codified it, took out the "mob" by defining the number of players on each team, and set the stage for their nation to become obsessed with David Beckham 400 years later.

Adapted from In the Beginning (HarperCollins), available at

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