09 Jan Football Mutations
For the purist, the beautiful game is not something to be tinkered with, but for the rest of us, there’s a world of football half-breeds out there and some of them are worth a closer look. With Euro 2016 on the horizon, now’s a great time to cast an eye over some of the more unique variations, ranging from the violent and bloody to the sublimely beautiful.
Each June in Florence, Italy they add a gladiatorial element to their football in the ancient game of calcio storico — a passionate blend of bare-knuckle boxing, rugby and football played out in Renaissance garb.
Following a pre-game ceremony, rich in pomp and steeped in tradition, 27 combatants from two sides take to the magnificent, Piazza Santa Croce to wrestle, gouge and batter each other for the best part of an hour. Oh, and there’s a football in there somewhere too. The rules seem almost incidental despite the fact that there are seven officials on hand — splendidly dressed officials at that, in their fitted doublets, puffy knee-length pants and velvet caps adorned with ostrich plumes.
Off the pitch, cannons boom and flags wave as acrid, team-coloured smoke billows from smoke bombs.
After 50 minutes of this football free-for-all, a winner is decided. The prize? A pile of steaks of a weight equivalent to that of a white calf. I’ll take mine rare with a nice drop of Barbaresco.
How…what…did that just happen? For the uninitiated, an introduction to sepak takraw can be a jaw-dropping experience.
Imagine the speed and accuracy of volleyball, cut with the deftness and touch of football combined with the acrobatics of a gymnastics floor routine and you’ll come close to understanding the visual appeal of sepak takraw.
To keep it short and simple — whilst hardly doing it justice — sepak takraw is a three-a-side game of foot volleyball. Serves can reach up to 100 kilometres an hour but it’s the cartwheel spike that commands the oohs and aahs from the spectators. It’s sepak takraw’s slam dunk. A power play where the spiker launches into a backflip before meeting the ball with his foot at the highest point of its arc. It’s a move that is often met at the net by an opposition player in the throws of a mirrored defensive motion. The resulting exchange is nothing short of spectacular.
A little further east in Myanmar (Burma), the ancient sport of chinlone takes the graceful aspect of the beautiful game and adds an almost spiritual element to it.
While sepak takraw is raw and powerful, chinlone — though closely related — is exquisite, almost ethereal.
The fundamentals of chinlone are simple: a slowly rotating circle of six strive to keep a 12cm ball of rattan aloft without using their hands. There is no competition, no winners or losers. When the ball hits the ground, you simply start over again. The focus is solely on how beautifully the game is played.
Chinlone may be Myanmar’s best kept secret, a fusion of sport, dance and meditation set to a rattan-click beat.
Football in the River
The Windrush River is the water in the English village of Bourton-on-the-Water and for one day a year, it’s also the venue for one of football’s strangest fixtures.
Each and every August bank holiday Monday, the local Bourton Rovers F.C. field two teams that play to a bumper crowd in the annual Football in the River Championships.
Forget your nine-a-side, for ninety minutes, on a pretty pitch of green. We’re talking six-a-side, for half an hour, knee deep in a bubbling brook.
As a spectacle it ain’t pretty but it’s a great laugh and when the weather’s on song, this picture-postcard, Cotswold village is a most agreeable place to be.
Further north in Strachur, Scotland, teams like the “Fuddy Muckers“, “Real Mudrid“, “Bendover Mandlikova“, and the “Bar Stool Loners” get down and dirty at the annual Swamp Soccer World Championships. It’s mayhem and madness in the mud with a big emphasis on fun. Don’t expect any Ronaldo-esque step-overs but chances are you’ll see your fair share of fall-overs.
Games are six-a-side, 12 minutes per half, but that’s more than enough when you’re trudging through a mire.
Stewart Miller, the daddy of the sport in the UK explains, “It’s extremely difficult, most of the successful teams have a very, very big squad and what they’ll do, they’ll allow somebody on for a few minutes then bring them off so they keep changing all the time. It really is hard going.”
Player preparation is essential. If you don’t tape your boots onto your ankles, don’t expect to be wearing them for too long.
When that final whistle blows, it’s a quick dip in the local loch and then back to the pub for a wee dram or two.