Football was born in Paraguay.
It was not the English who created football, as mainstream European literature asserts. It was the Guarani who invented it.
This is the thesis of the short documentary “Los Guaraníes inventeron el Fútbol” (2014), directed by the Paraguayan filmmaker Marcos Ybáñez and based on the research of the Spanish Bartomeu Melià (1932-2019), specializing in history of the Guarani.
Melià maintains that football was played by the Guarani in the 17th century, in the Jesuit strongholds of San Ignacio Guazú, in what is now Misiones, 230 km from Asunción.
There are records of the practice of the mango ñembosarái (“ball game with the feet”, in Guarani) dating from 1639, long before Paraguay’s independence in 1811, and the regulation of football by the English, in 1848.
According to the documentary, the manga ñembosarái was a precursor to modern football, with the Guarani being the parents of football.
In this sense, Paraguay claims the paternity of football in the world.
What the story says
The first record of the practice of the ñembosarái mango by the Guarani Indians would have been the “Tesoro de la Lengua Guaraní”, a bilingual Guarani-Spanish dictionary published by the Peruvian Jesuit Antonio Ruiz de Montoya, in 1639.
In this dictionary, “mangai” is defined as “arbol que de la pelotas que llaman de neruio”, a reference to the rubber balls with which the Guaraní played mango ñembosarái on the Sunday after mass.
Other documents on sport can be found in “Breve relación de las Misiones del Paraguay” (1771) and “La República de Platón y los Guaraníes” (1793), written respectively by the Spanish Jesuits José Cardiel and José Manuel Peramás. They suggest the practice of this game quite similar to current football, which had two teams playing and touching the ball, without letting it stop.
There was no time limit, no goals. Matches always ended 0-0. The team that got tired first and left the game lost, which could go on for hours.
There were those who bet on the winning team, as well as spectators and mere curiosities.
The ball was difficult to control, requiring skill from the players. Made of wet sand, it was covered with rubber – resin extracted from mango – and inflated with bamboo to the desired size.
The municipality of San Ignacio Guazú, where the first Jesuit reduction was founded in the Rio da Prata basin, in 1609, and where the indigenous Guarani were grouped together, claims the paternity of football for itself and associates this element with its history cultural.
In 2010, the thesis that football was the invention of Guarani was published in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, thus strengthening the legitimacy of the Paraguayan election.
The precursors of contemporary football
Since then, the subject has been reported in Argentine, Spanish and Paraguayan periodicals.
Nonetheless, it is reasonable to believe that ñembosarái manga is not the only precursor sport in today’s football, but only one of them, among countless others that date back to older times.
Adopting a global history perspective – to the detriment of a geographically restricted perspective, such as nationalists – seems to be more adequate for understanding the evolution of ideas and practices in the world.
Let us look at other cases which, like the manga ñembosarái Guarani, can also be considered as precursors of contemporary football.
As an example, I cite the ts’uh Kúh (cuju), practiced in China 2000 years before Jesus Christ, which consisted of a military training activity very close to the current logic of football.
I quote the episcopyrus practiced in ancient Greece, composed of two teams of 11 or more players, marked by violence. The ball was made of sand with an ox bladder and the use of the hands was allowed – in the ñembosarái round the use of the hands was prohibited.
There was pre-Columbian football of the Mayan and Aztec peoples in Mesoamerica, practiced for over 3,000 years, with rubber balls and blood rituals in which the captain of the defeated team was sacrificed.
I also mention the harpastum, practiced at the height of the Roman Empire, the objective of which was to throw the ball into the field of the opposing team, and the kemari, practiced in Japan since the 7th century, in which the bodily contact was prohibited, given its religious and ceremonial mystique. Literature indicates that the kemari was influenced by the Chinese ts’uh Kúh.
There is Calcio Fiorentino, practiced since the 16th century in Florence, a kind of revival of the Roman harpast. Eventually, bulls were inserted into the arena to increase the adrenaline of players and spectators. The games were more like battlegrounds, as punches, kicks, and punches between players were allowed, often serving as a trigger for widespread fighting. Even so, the goal was to score.
Since the 17th century, Native Americans have practiced pasuckuakohowog, the matches of which could bring together around a thousand players, with common festivities at the end.
In Australia, the natives practiced marn grook. In Alaska, the Eskimos played asqaqtuk, something like ice football.
These and other types of ball play can be seen as precursors to contemporary football.
It is reasonable to conclude that the manga ñembosarái Guarani does not explain the whole history of football. Even so, he is a legitimate precursor of contemporary football, like others mentioned in a purely exemplary manner (with no intention of exhausting the inventory), in addition to a historical legacy of the admirable Guarani culture.
It would be imprecise to attribute the authorship of football to a particular people.
If it wasn’t the Paraguayans who invented football, neither did the British. Australians, Chinese, Eskimos, Greeks, Italians, Japanese, Mesoamericans and North Americans, among countless others, contribute positively to the construction of this history, which also includes the Guarani-Paraguayans.
Far from being an exclusively Guarani or British product, football has multiple and infinite paternity. Paraguay is another piece of this cast.