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Sorry England, Guarani Natives Of Paraguay Say They Invented Soccer

Paraguay's Ministry of Culture says the real birthplace of the game the English named football, and gave rules to, was not in fact England. The Jesuits may have the proof.

The universal game in Asuncion
The universal game in Asuncion
Jiuletta Roffo

ASUNCION — Sports fans around the world have long believed that the game of soccer was born in England, where its rules were set down in 1863.

But now the government of Paraguay insists that the Guaraní, the natives from the "southern-cone" region of South America, were kicking a ball around much earlier. This was documented in the 18th century by the Jesuits working here to convert the natives to Catholicism, the religion of the alternately civilizing and genocidal European conquerors.

Paraguay's Ministry of Culture has launched a short documentary called The Guaraní Invented Football, to supposedly set the record straight. Its initiative followed the publication in the Vatican's official gazette of an observation written by 18th century Jesuits on how the Guaraní made a kind of football using wet sand wrapped in layers of a tree sap not dissimilar to rubber, which was then inflated.

The Guaraní, who inhabited territories that spanned across Paraguay, as well as parts of present-day Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Bolivia were observed kicking that durable ball around on Sundays, for example, after attending mass. The aim of their game was not, however, to score goals, but to prevent the ball from touching the ground. The side that tired first lost, and a game could last until sunset, as chroniclers observed in 1775 and 1777. Crowds of fans watched and there was reportedly some betting.

The Jesuits wrote in their "cartas anuas," the annual reports to the Pope, of the Guaraní"s dexterity with this type of football, called Mangai in the first dictionary of the Guaraní language. The name came from the tree whose sap was used to make the ball.

Guaraní of today Photo: Percursodacultura

A councillor of the Guaraní settlement in San Ignacio Guazú in Paraguay, Máximo Génez, has his suspicions of what happened. "We think the English could have had the idea for football after seeing the Guaraní taken to Spain by the Jesuits, perhaps when they were showing their game to royalty before visiting Englishmen." Génez says many in his community want San Ignacio to be known as the birthplace of football.

Ball playing in the Americas was not confined to the Guaraní of course. The Maya and the Aztecs of Mexico had their famous ball game where a ball had to be sent through a loop using knees, hips and elbows. The losers faced the prospect of being sacrificed to the gods. Something to bear in mind perhaps for football hooligans.

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