“The idea of the team sport was invented in Mesoamerica.”
Soccer is by far the world’s most popular sport, and for good reason—beloved by at least 265 million people worldwide, it’s easy to play in a random yard or field and instantly relate to the players racing across stadiums like the ones in Russia hosting this year’s World Cup.
But if you’re looking for the earliest ancestor of all that running, kicking, and cooperating, be ready to turn back your watch, spin your globe—and make sure not to literally lose your head.
The Chinese were the first to get their kicks by kicking balls into nets for sport in the third century B.C., and the game known globally as football was formalized in England in the 19th century. But the predecessor of most modern ball games as we play them today can be found in the Americas.
“The idea of the team sport was invented in Mesoamerica,” says Mary Miller, a professor of the history of art at Yale University who has studied extensive evidence of the sport. (See vintage pictures of soccer players around the world.)