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History of Football - The Aztecs

Soccer is the most popular sport in the world. How did it start and why is it so popular ?
To answer those questions, we'll go back in time.



The origins of the first team sports ever played with a rubber ball begins about 1500 BC, this occurs in "the New World" on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Deep in the jungles, ballgames were played by the Olmec kings, rulers of Mesoamerica's first great civilization. From there the ancient tradition of formal games, with competitive teams, bouncing rubber balls, gambling, ritual activities, trophies, heroes and ball court architecture spread throughout Mexico, into the American Southwest, on to the Caribbean islands and up the Mississippi River drainage into North America. It was one of the major elements of ritual and secular life in the early civilizations of "the New World". The sport was played by all major cultures of Mesoamerica. The Olmecs, the Maya, the Zapotecs, Toltecs and Aztecs participated in the game and the rituals associated with it. As far north as the American Southwest, an area strongly influenced by Mexican civilizations, prehistoric remains of rubber balls have been recovered from excavations. In addition, over 200 oval shaped ball courts have been reported in an area ranging from the Mexican border to just south of Flagstaff, Arizona. At least two forms of this ancient sport still exist and are played in Mexico today. In the states of Sinoloa and Oaxaca the solid rubber balls are still made and teams avidly compete against each other in village streets and city plazas. In northwestern Mexico, Sinoloa teams play a game called "Ulama" that is closely related to the game played by the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish conquest. In the southern highland valley of Oaxaca another game also related to the pre-Hispanic sport is played with a solid rubber ball that is hit with a heavily padded leather glove studded with nail heads.

In Mexico, which was the heartland of the ancient ballgame tradition, well over 600 stone ball courts have been found and many more undoubtedly exist still covered over by jungle or modern towns. The ruins of almost every ancient city include a walled court for the sacred game. The courts were often close to temples, reinforcing the spiritual nature of the game. It has been described as a spectator sport, an astrological study and a political engagement all at the same time. The sense of astrology comes from the fact that the Aztecs and particularly the priests felt that the movement of the rubber ball during the game symbolized the future path of the sun. This game known in Nahuatl (= the language of the Aztecs) as "Ullamaliztli" ("ulli" = rubber) was one of the most striking hallmarks of prehispanic Mesoamerica and every community of any size must have boasted at least one ball court. Played by the nobility of the Precolumbian world, the game was truly a sport of kings. Both a competitive contest and a ritual ceremony, the game held religious as well as secular significance for players and spectators. Teams competed on a formal stone court, known in the Aztec period as "Tlatchli". The court was normally an 'I' or 'H' shape with one stone ring at each end of the court. The stone rings were similar to basketball hoops and were 8-10 feet off the ground, the actual hole was less than 30 cm wide. These courts averaged 120 by 30 feet, though some were small enough to contain only two players at a time and a few others were as large as a modern football field. On each side of a playing alley were two long parallel walls against which a rubber ball was resounded and bounced from team to team. Points were scored when opposing ball players missed a shot at the vertical hoops placed at the center point of the side walls, were unable to return the ball to the opposing team before it had bounced a second time, or allowed the ball to bounce outside the boundaries of the court. The ball itself was of solid rubber and weighed 5 to 8 pounds (2 - 3 kilos), injuries or even death could occur from its impact on vital parts of the body. A number of ways of playing the game are known, one used a bat, another used a paddle or padded hands to hit the ball and still another allowed the ball to be kicked with the feet. However, in the dominant and best known form of the game, the ball could only be struck with the hips, buttocks, knees or elbows. Players were given kneepads and helmets to protect them from the heavy rubber ball, although this was only a temporary measure as the losers of the game were sacrificed to the gods. It drew many spectators and almost always involved heavy gambling. According to Aztec records, nobility and commoners alike often staked all they owned, land, crops, jewelry and even their wives and children on the outcome of the game.

The strongest evidence for the game and its importance to Mesoamerican peoples is, of course, the beautiful ball courts. At first the game was probably played on open marked fields rather than in courts, but very soon in the history of the sport formal architecture made its appearance. While there is some variation through time and from region to region, basically the form of courts remained the same over 3000 years. Parallel masonry walls enclosed a long narrow playing alley which may or may not have end zones. At times the walls were straight but could also be sloped and were often decorated with stone sculpture of birds, jaguars and skeletal heads, as well as carved stone friezes depicting post game rituals of human sacrifice. After about 800 AD, stone rings were added at the central point of both walls suggesting a change in the rules of the game during what is known as the Postclassic Period of Mesoamerica (9001525 AD). Finally, with the arrival of the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in 1519, the game was recorded by Spanish soldiers and priests in documents that survive today and give us written descriptions of the Pre-Columbian game. However, during the Spanish colonial period in Mexico the ballgame, and what the Catholic Church viewed as its pagan rituals, were prohibited, the splendid courts were torn down and the game almost forgotten. Later, when Cortes returned to Spain in 1528, the Spanish colonists imported exotic plants such as potatoes, tobacco and rubber to Europe. Cortes took with him ballplayers (read : "slaves") who demonstrated their skills at the court of Emperor Charles V. The "magical ball" made of rubber was also introduced but banned by the Catholic Church. That's also a reason why people played "football" with a pig bladder in other parts of Europe. Spain was at the moment ruler over Europe and worked together with the Catholic Church that prohibited every barbarian activity.

From its origins around 1500 BC, in the jungles of Gulf Coast Mexico, the rubber ballgame was carried by Olmec merchants along trade routes into other parts of ancient Mesoamerica. Into Western Mexico, the central highlands, including the valleys of Mexico and Oaxaca, on to the Maya area. Long after the Olmec civilization had vanished, the game continued as a hallmark of Precolumbian Mesoamerica and was played by all other pre-Hispanic cultures. In Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala as well as throughout Mexico itself, gleaming white ballcourts, painted with brilliant colors were built in hundreds of ancient cities as centers of sport and ritual. By 700 AD, the game had been carried into the American southwest where it was played on oval shaped adobe and stone courts by an expanding Hohokam culture. Evidence for the game is present in all these regions. In the Olmec heartland great stone heads of ballplayers have been recovered from ancient sites. Some are as large as 9' in height, others somewhat smaller, but all wear protective football style helmets and are thought to be depictions of Olmec kings. In addition a number of stone statues depict men wearing thick ballgame yokes or belts. In the civilizations that followed the Olmec, stone objects associated with the ballgame continue to be made and clay figurines wearing ballgame equipment are well known objects of ceramic art. Their heavy protective belts, kneepads and gloves clearly designate them as ballplayers and they provide clear evidence for a 3000 year continuity of the ritual sport.

During the playing of the Mesoamerican ballgame, athletes wore special equipment to protect them from injury and to help deflect and hit the ball. Equipment needs varied somewhat over time but most commonly headdresses or helmets protected the head, quilted cotton pads covered the elbows and knees and heavy belts or yokes, probably of leather or basketry, were worn around the waist. These yokes, however, and special items known as "Palmas", "Hachas" and "Manoplas" were also made in heavy stone and are clearly associated with the ancient ballgame. They have been recovered from burials of ballplayers, and in the ruins of courts. In addition they are depicted on figurines, painted vessels, and stone carvings. It is not certain whether this bulky stone equipment was actually worn during the play of the game or whether it was made for ceremonial purposes, worn perhaps as contenders paraded into the court or for completion rituals. The yokes, even though they may weigh as much as 50 lbs, fit easily, even comfortably, around the hips of slender athletes and would have been extremely effective in returning the hard rubber ball. "Manoplas", or hand stones, would have been useful in hitting the ball or protecting a participants hand as he fell to the floor of the court in play. "Palmas" and "Hachas", however, seem to have have little purpose in the game. The "Palmas", shown worn at the front of the yoke, are too fragile to have survived the rigorous play. The "Hachas", which dangle from the belt or yoke, at first glance also seem useless adornments. Many of them are in the shape of a human or skeletal head and may relate to an ancient tradition when the game was associated with a headhunting cult. Members of such a cult might have hung from their belts the trophy heads taken in battle. "Hachas" may reflect this symbolism and its ancient relationship with the ballgame.

Athletes have always risked their lives, health and reputations on the outcome of games and spectators have also had major stakes in sports through betting and gambling on the results of contests. This was as true in ancient Mesoamerica as it is today, only in the pre-Hispanic period staking your life on the game was literally true. At the end of the ritual competition, the captain of the defeated team actually lost his head. In illustrations from Pre-Columbian books such as the "Codex Borgia" and on carved stone friezes decorating the parallel walls of magnificent ball courts at the sites of "Chichen Itza" and "El Tajin", the decapitation of one team captain by the other, or by a priest, is clearly depicted. The traditional implement of sacrifice was an obsidian knife, the sharpest tool known in the Pre-Columbian world. It cleanly and quickly dispatched the losing hero and sent him on his way as a sacrificial offering, or perhaps messenger, to the demanding gods. While human sacrifice was an essential element of the Pre-Columbian ballgame and players in the great ceremonial courts at urban centers must have been well aware of the possibility of death with the obsidian blade, other significant stakes were also attached to the sport. In spite of protective equipment, injuries from the heavy solid rubber ball were common and players were often carried severely hurt from the ball courts to be attended by physicians. But the dangers were apparently considered insignificant compared to the glory which was attained by the greatest players. According to the Spanish chronicles, these professional athletes often became the companions and intimates of kings and were awarded honors and special privileges at court. Most honored of all was the player who actually managed to send the ball through one of the stone rings placed at the center of each wall of the court. Usually the game was won by the accumulation of points as the passing of the ball through the ring was so difficult that as soon as it happened the game was over. The man who sent the ball through the stone ring, was celebrated by all others. They honored him, sang songs of praise to him and joined him in dancing, he was given a special award of feathers or mantles and breechcloths which was very highly prized. The winner was honored as a man who had won a battle.

Another essential part of the game was "gambling", players and spectators laid wagers on the outcome of the game. Usually they gambled their home, fields, corn granaries and maguey plants, they even sold their children in order to bet and staked themselves to become slaves. The nobility who never seemed to lack the wealth to pay their gambling debts, played and watched the game more for recreational purposes. Rulers even played the game for kingdoms, as when "Axayacatl", Emperor of the Aztec capital of "Tenochtitlan", waged his yearly wealth against that of the "Xihuitlemoc", the king of "Xochimilco". Legend says that Emperor Axayacatl gambled with a priest of Xochimilco, he wanted to give the market-place of Mexico (a giant square or "tianquez") in exchange for the priests garden. The Emperor lost and his soldiers gave the priest some presents, also a necklace with flowers, and strangled him. The players themselves also gambled on the game. In addition, at least during the Aztec period, the winning team could accumulate wealth through a tradition that, at the close of the contest, allowed them to run into the watching crowd and seize jewelry of gold and jade as well as rich clothing and accoutrements from the spectators.

The Mesoamerican ballgame had its origin in the the cosmic view and religious beliefs of the pre-Hispanic peoples. In spite of changes over time into a more secular spectator sport, the game retained its ongoing religious significance for participants and audiences alike. The meaning behind the game undoubtedly varied across time and space. The most common interpretation sees the ball and its movement in the court as the movement of heavenly bodies in the sky. The game is viewed as a battle between the sun, and its life giving principle of light, against the moon and stars who represent the principle of darkness. The opposing forces of day and night, dark and light, good and evil, life and death are symbolically acted out on the ball court. Clearly associated with this view of the game is the cult of fertility, the enduring need of agricultural peoples for the productivity of the earth which depends on the life giving warmth and light of the sun. Human sacrifice by decapitation is a recurring theme associated with ball courts and ballgame imagery. The streams of blood that spurt from the decapitated victim may be seen as fertilizing the earth or perhaps as an offering of sustenance to the sun in its battle against the forces of night. In the Maya region this cosmic battle is seen in the creation myth of twin brothers who play a ballgame in the underworld against the gods of death and pestilence. Their victory against the forces of darkness resulted in their ascension into the sky, one becoming the sun and the other the moon. This legendary game of the hero twins may have been reenacted on the ball courts of the Classic Maya period by Maya kings dressed as ballplayers. In the final act of the game, the winners sacrificed their royal opponents, who had been taken captive in battle in preparation for the staging of the event, thus reinforcing the power of the victorious rulers. Among the Maya the court seems to have been viewed as the entrance to the underworld, the opening in the earth where the hero twins descended to "Xibalba" to challenge the gods on the ball court. Whatever the interpretation of the game and its changes over time, we know it was accompanied by elaborate rites and ritual performances. Fasting and abstinence from sexual activity were required of ballplayers preceding the game and further preparation included incantations by priests and special prayers and offerings to the ball playing equipment itself to help insure victory. Musicians playing conch shell trumpets, flutes, whistles and drums paraded with elaborately costumed dancers. Acrobats and magicians performed their tricks in the plazas and ritual dramas took place on the steps of the great pyramids, as kings and commoners gathered for the colorful celebration of the game and the blood sacrifice associated with it.

In Pre-Columbian West Mexico, the tradition of ballplayer figurines is as old, or older, than any other place in Mesoamerica. A group of ballgame figures from the "El Openo" tombs near modern Guadalajara are dated at (8001200 BC). These radio carbon dates place them firmly in the early pre-classic Period along with ballgame figurines from "Xochipala" in Guerrero, "Tlatilco" in the Valley of Mexico and early Olmec sites on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Archaeological excavation and survey in the highlands of Nayarit and Jalisco have uncovered many sites with recognizable ball courts. These begin about 600 BC and continue on through the Classic Period, ending around 700 AD. In addition ceramic figurines of ballplayers have been found in West Mexican burials from sites of the Shaft Tomb culture (300 BC 300 AD). Here and in the American Southwest the game may have had a special use as a device to resolve disputes, a substitute for warfare itself. For over 500 years (7001250 AD) a Mesoamerican derived ballgame was also played in the Hohokam region of Arizona. It probably reached the American southwest from west Mexico. In the southwest, from the present border with Mexico, north to Flagstaff, 206 ball courts have been identified at 166 sites. The courts are oval with slightly concave floors, not the 'I' shape of Mesoamerican courts, however, with their smoothed surfaces and parallel walls they are functionally suitable for playing a form of the Mesoamerican ballgame. Rubber balls have also been recovered at Arizona sites, further confirming the connection between the Hohokam culture and Pre-Hispanic Mexican civilizations to the south. Most likely the idea for the game itself was carried, along trade routes established for the exchange of turquoise, copper, shell, macaw feathers, cotton and other valuable items. Small clay figurines of ballplayers, painted pottery and petro glyphs along with the ball courts, confirm the presence of the Pre-Columbian game in the southwestern region of the United States. At least two versions are played by modern indigenous peoples, one is centered in the Oaxaca Valley and the other in northwestern Mexico.

Today in the Mixtec region of Mexico, a ballgame derived from the pre-Hispanic sport is still played. The game originates in the highland valley of Oaxaca but is also played in various other areas where Zapotec and Mixtec emigrants from Oaxaca have settled, such as Mexico City and San Diego, California. The game appears to be a throwback to an ancient Mesoamerican handball game. It is played on a court about 300 feet long by 30 feet wide, marked out on a field with lines. The two open ends of the court are called the serving and return areas, here is placed a flat stone on which the ball is bounced at the serve. A solid rubber ball is used in play and is hit with a glove or gauntlet which may weigh up to 14 lbs. The specially made leather glove is padded on the palm with layers of hide and reinforced on the outer surface with round headed rivets to protect the part of the hand most directly in contact with the heavy rubber ball. Temas are composed of five players who once the ball has been served must continue to return it either before it touches or the ground or after it has bounced only once. Points are scored when one team manages to get the ball out of reach of the opposition, so that it bounces out of bounds on the side or end zones and cannot be returned. While a handball game was never described by the Spanish, we know such a game was played during the Pre-Columbian period. Many figurines hold balls in their hands, codices (pre-Hispanic books) depict handball games and wall murals at "Teotihuacan", the greatest of all ancient sites, show such a game being played.

In the modern state of Sinoloa, located in northwestern Mexico, a current version of the ancient game of "Ullamalitzli" is still played. Its name, "Ulama", is even derived from the Pre-Columbian Aztec name of 500 years ago (ullamalitzli) and solid rubber balls are still carefully made to be used by the competing teams. Little of the former splendor of the Pre-Columbian game survives today. The colorful costumes, religious ritual and elaborate stone courts have vanished with time but the genetic relationship is clear. When a game is to be played a court is marked off with lines in an open field. This playing field, usually about 200 ft. by 12 ft. is carefully smoothed and leveled to avoid erratic bounces of the ball. Two forms of the game are played, one known as "arm Ulama" and the other as "hip Ulama". As the names indicate, one is played by returning the ball with the hip or buttocks, as is recorded for the Aztecs, the other by hitting the ball with a wraped forearm. Arm and knee protectors are used in the arm game. In hip ulama players wear a triangular deerskin tied around the waist and, as a hip guard, a heavy leather belt which protects the lower abdomen from the impact of the ball and provides protection when the player swoops against the ground to lift the ball with his hip for a return. Most commonly there are three players on "arm ulama" teams and five on "hip ulama" teams. The players line up in a straight line on their own half of the court, between the center dividing line (analco) and the baseline (chivo). At each of these lines an umpire is stationed. The ball may be hit either high (arriba) or low (abajo) with hip or forearm depending on the game, but must not be touched with any other part of the body, including hands and feet. The umpire/judge at the center line rolls or throws the ball into the court to begin play. The first team to get 8 points (rayas) is the winner. Points are scored by body faults (receiving or hitting the ball with the wrong part of the body), and service and rally faults (if the ball goes beyond the baseline , does not cross the center line, or bounces more than once). The scoring, however, is extremely complicated. Not only do points accumulate but, based on what combinations of points occur and when, scores may go down as well as up, often making for a very long game.

For over 3000 years, from the Olmecs to the Maya, Toltecs and Aztecs, the rubber ballgame was truly a sport of kings and one of the most striking hallmarks of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. In Mexico today the heritage of this pre-hispanic tradition lingers on in the game of "Ulama" and in the "Mixtec" handball game. However, not only in Mexico but throughout the modern world, we are all heirs of the Pre-Columbian past as we participate in team sports played with bouncing rubber balls.

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Page updated on... Friday, July 25, 2014 @ 23:06:20 -0700 PM - GMT
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