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The Ancient Sport of El Juego de Pelota

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Playing pot-ta-pok in Mexico
Credit: Mexico News Daily

Have you ever wondered why Mexicans love soccer – or as we say, futbol – so much? Well, our passion for futbol can be traced back to our pre-Hispanic origins when the ancient sport of el juego de pelota was played by our ancestors.

Many centuries ago, all the ancient cultures that inhabited Mexico – the Aztecas, the Mayas, the Toltecas and the Teotihuacanos – played what we call el juego de pelota. However, it had a different name then. The cultures in the center of Mexico called it tlachtli and the Maya and the Taladazi in the south of Mexico called it pok-ta-pok.

El juego de pelota is the literal translation of ballgame, a complex and very sacred ritual that synthesized the knowledge of the universe known by all these civilizations. Every culture gave its own symbolism and meaning according to their beliefs. These interpretations changed through time and place.

El juego de pelota involved everything related to war, agriculture, fertility, cult of the ancestors and the legitimacy of the emperors. Although, it could also be as vain as a simple bet between the emperors.

Its practice goes back about 3,500 years and was known since the Olmecas, the mother culture of all civilizations established in Mexico. It was not until the arrival of the Spaniards that it was forbidden by the Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada. Fortunately, he could not make it disappear completely. The Spaniards considered this game a barbarism because it involved sacrifices to complete the ritual of the victory of light over darkness.

Ballgame courts can be found in Chichen Itza, Teotihuacán, Monte Albán, Cantona, Huachimontones and many other ancient historical sites in Mexico and Guatemala. The courts were part of their religious temples. They were built at ground level or sometimes below it. The court was either T-shaped or I-shaped and divided into two sides. Courts could be as long as the one in Chichen, which is 170 m long and 70 m wide. There were two walls along the court with a stone ring, which had sculpted symbols representing their gods of good and evil, on both walls at a certain height in the middle of the court.

More than 1,500 courts have been found to date by archaeologists. In fact, more ballgame courts have been found in Mexico and Guatemala than in the Roman and Greek empires.

The courts were built to represent the players descending into the underworld to fight against the deities of the night and darkness. The light and the sun would always win over the darkness of the moon and the stars, so the order of their cosmology and life would continue as they knew it.

The players were dressed as solar gods, almost naked with protections made of leather, cotton, basketry or wood called “mastlalt” to cover their hips and forearms. They would also use gloves on their hands to protect them. In some regions, like Tula, they would also wear a tuft or crest with beautiful feathers and their best dresses. In Chichen Itza, the Maya would use masks to represent their gods.

The ball they used in the game was made of solid rubber, which weighed about 6.6 pounds. The rubber, or “hule,” was extracted from the precious tree “Olcuáuitl,” or “Ulcáhuatl,” which literally means rubber tree. The way they extracted hule was to scrape the bark of the trees so they could bleed the resin to make the ball and many other objects.

Even now it is not clear the exact rules of the game. However, many chroniclers and historians, such as Francisco Javier Clavijero (1731-1787), described it as a match between two teams of two, three or four players on each team, although some believe teams could have had from one to seven players on each side.

The game was played by hitting the rubber ball from one side of the court to the other. Players were allowed to only hit the ball with either their hips or forearms. If they hit the ball with another part of their body, the other team would get a point. A team won by scoring the most points or, if one of the players was able to get the ball through one of the rings on the walls, they would automatically win and the player was honored with chants and very valuable prizes. Other versions of ballgame included using some kind of club, stick or glove made of rock or wood to hit the ball, instead of their body.

Importantly, it is not clear if the winners or the losers were the ones to be sacrificed to honor the gods and complete the ritual. There are also many other aspects to the ballgame not fully discussed here.

El juego de pelota is still practiced nowadays in many states of Mexico and Guatemala. There are even championship games played like La Copa Peninsular or El Campeonato Nacional de Pelota Mesoamericana.

We encourage you to visit these magnificent ball courts to admire all the engineering, mysticism, art and religion behind this ancient sport.

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