Like millions of people around the world, my 15-year-old nephew is religiously following the 2018 Fifa World Cup tournament in Russia. An avid football fan, he is a mid-fielder in his school’s team. Regrettably, I haven’t been able to connect with him vis-à-vis the beautiful game because I’ve never been good at sports, nor am I good at watching them. I just don’t get it.

On its website, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa) states that the “very earliest form of the game for which there is scientific evidence was an exercise from a military manual dating back to the second and third centuries BC in China”. This isn’t to say that the Chinese invented football. After all, kicking a ball for sport has a certain universality about it. The ancient Chinese, being compulsive chroniclers, were probably one of the few ancient peoples who wrote about it.

Fifa does not identify the “military manual”, but Records of the Grand Historian, completed around 94BC, mentions that during the Warring States period (475-221BC), the people of the rich and powerful state of Qi (in present-day Shandong) engaged in all manner of leisure activities, one of which was cuju, literally “kicking a ball”.

By the Han period (206BC-AD220), cuju had developed into a professional sport. Played on special grounds – with stands for spectators – where two teams of 12 players each tried to kick a leather ball stuffed with animal hair into a goal, it was popular among the elite and soldiers, who played the game as a form of exercise.

Its popularity soared during the Tang dynasty (618-907), when a leather ball filled with the inflated bladder of an animal was used for better manoeuvrability. With two competing teams, a lighter ball that could go longer distances, and two goalposts, the game bore a resemblance to modern-day football. There were even women’s teams.

Why China can’t find 11 good footballers from its vast population

However, by the Song Period (960-1279), cuju was no longer a team sport. Instead, one or more players would try to keep the ball in the air for as long as possible, manipulating it with various parts of the body, except the arms.

During the Yuan and Ming dynasties (1279-1644), cuju remained popular among aristocrats and officials, although it gradually became associated with vice because brothels began promoting the game to attract customers. Emperor Taizu of the Ming dynasty even issued a decree prohibiting officials and soldiers from playing the game unless they wanted their feet amputated. The subsequent Qing dynasty (1644-1911) also banned the game among the nobility and officials in an attempt to prevent them from slacking off at work. Cuju eventually disappeared.

In contrast, the modern game of association football invented by the English has become one of world’s most popular sports. The Chinese, who enjoyed a similar game over 2,000 years ago, are still playing catch-up. Despite boasting almost a fifth of the global population, China’s national team has only qualified for the World Cup finals once, in 2002, where it lost all three matches played and scored a grand total of zero goals. Even tiny Iceland has done better.