Soccer-mania will reach a crescendo this week. Mexico’s team isn’t in the running for the World Cup any longer, but Mexico’s ancient cultures can take considerable credit for originating the game.
Before the conquest of Mexico, western Europe didn’t know team sports. They had one-on-one sports, such as jousting matches. And games where one person wins and everyone else loses, as in traditional Olympic events. And games where a person competed against an animal, such as bull fighting. But no team sports. The concept of a group of people competing against an equally sized opponent team is a Mesoamerican idea introduced to Europe in the early 16th century.
In the ancient Mesoamerican ball game, two teams competed on an I-shaped court, using their bodies to move a ball and scoring points along the way. Several Mesoamerican ball teams were taken to Spain shortly after the conquest. There they played exhibition matches for the king’s court thereby introducing the concept of teamwork to European sports.
Ancient cities all over Mexico, and indeed throughout Mesoamerica, have ball courts. Many even have multiple courts. Strangely Teotihuacan – the largest city of all – has none.
The most unusual ball court I’ve visited is in El Tajin in northern Veracruz. Seventeen ball courts have been discovered there so far and more will undoubtedly be found as archeologists continue to clear vegetation from the ruins.
The most famous of its ball courts has a pictorial description carved in stone of scenes of a game leading up to the sacrifice of one of the players. The scenes do not follow a progression of left to right or top to bottom. Instead they follow the path of the ball on the court as if being hit from one end of the court to the other. Viewing the vignettes in their proper order requires walking back and forth from one end to the other and from side to side of the court in an X-type pattern.
Not all ball games ended with the sacrifice of one of the players, but the fact that some did is evidence of the religious nature of the game. Spanish authorities considered anything associated with Mesoamerican religion to be cult of the devil and prohibited Mesoamerican ball games from being held. A few “descendent” games are played in northwestern Mexico and in Oaxaca but they don’t make use of the pre-Hispanic capital-I-shaped playing field.
While the rules of the ancient game have been lost, its effect on the world has not. World Cup soccer is proof.