ASUNCION, Sept 10, (AFP): South America’s Guarani people played a football-like game two centuries before the modern sport emerged, the Paraguayan government says in a new documentary based on Jesuit texts. The film, “The Guarani Invented Football,” retraces Catholic missionaries’ 17th-century descriptions of an indigenous game played with a rubbery inflatable ball that players had to control with their feet.
But despite its title, the film stops short of claiming the Guarani invented modern association football, a sport that grew out of various games dating back to ancient times that was first codified into a widely used rulebook in 19th-century England. “We’re not here looking to stake a claim on behalf of the Guarani,” Paraguayan Culture Minister Mabel Causarano told AFP.
“We just want to highlight a curious historical fact, which is that they were already playing a ball game with their feet when the Jesuits arrived shortly after 1600.”
When the first Europeans arrived in South America, the Guarani inhabited a territory that stretched across parts of present-day Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
While their hold on the region was greatly diminished by colonization, they remain an important presence in Paraguay, where Guarani is an official language alongside Spanish and is spoken by about 95 percent of the population.
The first Jesuit missionaries to arrive in the colony wrote dispatches to the Vatican describing how native men would play a game with a “bouncing ball,” according to Antonio Betancort, the Spanish priest who today heads the oldest Jesuit mission in Paraguay, San Ignacio Guazu, founded in 1609.
The missionaries said the game was called “mangai,” named for the Mangaisi tree the natives tapped to extract the honey-colored, rubbery resin used to make the ball. They also used the sticky substance to hunt parrots, spreading it on tree branches where the birds would get stuck, according to historians.
“The Guarani would make a vertical incision in the trunk to extract the thick, sticky liquid,” said Julio Galeano, the director of the San Ignacio museum, where Mangaisi trees still grow. Bartomeu Melia, a Jesuit priest and expert in Guarani culture, said the natives would form a ball of wet sand and cover it with layers of Mangaisi resin, then use a bamboo straw to blow air into the ball and inflate it to the right size.
“The ball bounced a lot and players had to have good coordination to control it and dribble it,” he said. There were no goals, and games lasted until one team got tired and quit, thus losing the match. “The problem is that every match ended 0-0,” joked Betancort. From the time the Jesuits arrived and set up missions to convert the Guarani, games were played on Sundays after mass.
Latin America’s Aztec and Inca peoples also had ball games well before Europeans arrived in the Americas, but did not have any known links with the Guarani, said historian Jorge Rubbiani. “I don’t think the Guarani invented football, but every civilization adds something to the game,” he said.
In Europe, the first full set of modern football rules was published in 1863 by England’s Football Association (FA), and the first international match was played in 1872 between England and Scotland. But evidence suggests English royalty played an organized form of the game as early as the 15th century, and ball games using the feet date back at least as far as the ancient Greeks and Romans.