The game that is known as football everywhere but the United States has a long tradition in Great Britain, especially England where it the modern game was first played. But soccer, as it is known in the U.S., may have antecedents on the American continent, specifically, in the South American republic of Paraguay. Two centuries before England first regularized the game that captivates millions of viewers the world over, the native people of Paraguay – the Guaraní – were already playing a very similar sport. While some anthropologists have theorized that the pyramids of Mexico and Central America, for example, were based on Egyptian models, could the fact that Paraguayans were playing football in the 1600s be evidence of cultural diffusion going in the opposite direction?
According to a Catholic priest, Rev. Bartomeu Meliá – a Jesuit – “It was the Guaraní who invented football.” He said this during an interview that appeared in a video documentary produced by Paraguay’s National Tourism Office. The video asserts that football is older than previously thought. According to the history book, football was first shaped into its modern form in 1863 by England’s Football Association. The word ‘soccer’ is a deformation of ‘association,’ and hence the name by which it came to be known in the U.S.
(Paraguayan children playing soccer)
Meliá’s theory is based on a book entitled “Tesoro de la lengua guaraní” (Treasury of Guaraní language), which was written by a fellow Jesuit, Rev. Antonio Ruíz de Montoya, and published in Spain in 1639, fully two centuries before the regularization of football in England. Ruíz de Montoya was a missionary priest and wrote about his arrival and travels in the Paraná River region of Paraguay. It was to his surprise that in that region he saw the Guaraní natives playing a game with a bouncing ball made of resinous tree sap.
Paraguay’s Minister of Culture, Mabel Causarano, told the media “We are not offering a vindication in the name of the Guaraní people: we are only saying that a ball game using feet already existed when the Jesuits arrived a little before 1600.” The Jesuits had numerous missions in Paraguay and northern Argentina where they built churches and taught the Christian faith and European culture to the native peoples. The hit movie 'The Mission' depicts the expulsion of the Jesuits by the combined Spanish and Portuguese empires during the 1700s and the destruction of the missions. Most of them are now either vacant or exhibited as museums.
Letters sent to the Vatican from a Jesuit mission called San Ignacio Guazú – the first to be built in Paraguay – described how the Guaraní played against each other with a ball that “bounced,” said Rev. Antonio Betancort, a Spanish priest. The reports written by the Jesuit missionaries of the time said that the Guaraní called the game manga ñembosarái, since it is the mangaisi tree that produces the honey-colored essential resin that is used to make the ball they used. According to Meliá, an expert on the culture of the guaraní, the native Paraguayans formed the balls by first creating a sphere of wet sand that they then covered with the rubber-like resin. Later, the ball would be inflated by using a bamboo straw.
Also, “Las Misiones de Paraguay” (The Paraguayan Missions) – a book published by Jesuit priest Rev. José Cardiel in 1771 – provided a description of manga ñembosarái in chronicles sent to headquarters in Rome.
Paraguayan historian Margarita Miró has affirmed that the game played by the Guaraní people of San Ignacio Guazú had the objective of keeping the ball in constant motion. Men typically played the game on Sundays after attending Mass at the mission church. Gambling was a significant part of the game festivities. A town council member of modern San Ignacio, Máximo Génez, told the BBC that he believes that Englishmen may have modelled modern football on the Guaraní game after seeing the Paraguayan natives play in Spain, where they were taken by Jesuit missionaries, in the court of the king.
It was during the 2010 World Cup games in South Africa that an article in L'Osservatore Romano appeared that said, “We have precise and unequivocal testimony that tells us that ….an activity strikingly similar to modern football existed, not in remote times, but in all probability in the 17th century and into the mid-18th century. Where? It was precisely in Paraguay, the country whose select team played against world-champion Italy during the Group F opening game in the World Cup.”
The Maya and Aztec peoples of Mexico and Central America, and possibly some native peoples of what is now the United States, also played a game using a rubber ball. The natives of the Meso-American region used the sap from rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis). The Meso-American game was played on stone ballcourts and was taken so seriously that in some instances the members of the losing team were sacrificed to their gods.
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