Three men play Ulama at the Centro Cultural Consejo Indígena de Teotihuacán in Teotihuacán, Mexico.

Soccer is the world's most popular sport. But who invented it?

The Brits formalized the game known globally as football—but its roots date back to ancient China and Mesoamerica.

Giovanni Navaro Cornelio, 30, (left) and Arturo Sanchez, 32, play ulama in Teotihuacán, Mexico. The ancient ball game—which the Mayans are believed to have played some 3,500 years ago—is a precursor to the sport known today as soccer, or football.
Photograph by Alicia Vera, Redux

Soccer is by far the world’s most popular sport, and for good reason—beloved by at least 265 million people worldwide, it’s easy to play in a random yard or field and instantly relate to the players racing across stadiums like the ones in Qatar hosting this year’s World Cup.

But if you’re looking for the earliest ancestor of all that running, kicking, and cooperating, be ready to turn back your watch, spin your globe—and make sure not to literally lose your head. Here’s what you need to know about soccer’s ancient origins and why it’s the world’s favorite sport today. 

The Chinese were the first to get their kicks by kicking balls into nets for sport in the third century B.C.,

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