Sunday, November 13, 2011

F**king Buzkashi, How Does It Work?

If you hang around trivia sites as much as I do- and trust me, running this blog you hang around them a lot- sooner or later each and every one of them is going to get around to telling you about a sport in Afghanistan played on horseback called buzkashi. Why? Because they use a goat for a ball.

There's a problem, though.

When they go into detail, all the trivia sites will tell you all about how chaotic and violent and straight-up nuts a buzkashi game gets. Usually, they'll use the 'traditional' version, which can take place on any semi-open stretch of land someone has on hand and, according to the Bathroom Reader version of events, can easily result in horses and riders careening into the spectators and even traffic- and plowing right on through, because the horses are trained to go through obstacles where normally a horse might pull up. The reputation is not unwarranted. But none of them ever actually say how the game actually freaking works. Maybe it's because there are different versions of the game, but honestly, that should be brought up.

The portrayal from Cracked- #7 on their list of 'The 10 Most Insane "Sports" In The World'- is pretty typical of how buzkashi usually gets covered by trivia sites. (The news sites do a far better job, though they don't tend to cover it as often. They were primarily interested when the Taliban banned it, and again when it was un-banned.)

So we'll largely forego the 'look how crazy those guys are' tack everyone else takes- if you want that, it isn't hard to find- and at least try to stick to the actual structure of the game.

Of course, buzkashi's nature doesn't make it easy. Like a game of Monopoly, everyone's got their own house rules.

The goat- decapitated, de-hooved, cleaned of its organs, soaked in cold water for 24 hours, and stuffed with sand- is placed in the center of the field. Recently, calves have become more popular; the carcass lasts longer.

There are two main game modes that determine what you do with that head: Tudabarai and Qarajai.

*In Qarajai, you take the head, round a marker at one end of the field, and toss it into a scoring circle- the "Circle of Justice"- at the other end.
*In Tudabarai, the aim is simply to take the head and get clear of the other players; what is considered "clear" is, as is becoming quickly common here, ill-defined, though it seems to involve a goal line. When the Bathroom Reader people were talking about plowing through traffic, that was probably a Tudabarai game.

Standing in your way are teams- it doesn't just have to be two teams on the field; it's however many they can form on a given day and that could easily get up into six or eight at a time, and on occasion it can even be every man for himself- of riders brandishing whips, trying to get you to drop the carcass however they have to do it, while your team (if applicable) tries to run blocking for you. And if 'however they have to do it' means 'knocking you off your horse and allowing you to potentially be trampled to death', well, them's the breaks. The only thing they can't do is whip you directly. They can whip your horse, but not you.

You will have a tough time defending yourself. Goat carcasses stuffed with sand can get rather heavy, especially when you're holding on to them off the side of a stampeding horse.

How long a game goes depends on who's running it. In more traditional versions, there is no time limit. Depending on the dimensions of the field, the size of the teams, and everyone's mood, a game could last for hours, or days.

There is a more regulated version governed by the Afghan Olympic Federation, mandating a time structure identical to soccer: two 45-minute halves with a 15-minute halftime. They also mandate field size- a 400-meter square- and team sizes: 10 riders to a team, only five of which can be on the field.

There's only one place that I found that even gave an indication of the scoring rate, a 2009 account from the New York Times. There, they covered a three-team contest that lasted three hours. The winning team (which, by the way, gets to eat the goat afterwards) scored 30 goals, second place had 20 goals, and last place had 16, which works out to a goal every 2.7 minutes or so. Is this high-scoring? Low-scoring? No idea.

Here's a video of what appears to be a game using the Qarajai format:

There isn't any league structure; every game's a one-off thing, though there does tend to be a buzkashi 'season'- November to February, with Friday designated as Buzkashi Night In Afghanistan. Sponsors dole out the horses and hope their horse ends up in the hands of the eventual MVP. Rider and owner stand to make a lot of money if that happens; the Wall Street Journal article notes that the player who scores can make "thousands of dollars" in a country where most get by on less than a dollar a day.

As ESPN noted in September in what is far and away the best profile of the sport I've come across, the scale of the money on offer has in recent years led to a small wave of players going pro, playing buzkashi full-time. That, in turn, has led to complaints from some that buzkashi players, rather than playing for love of the game or community pride, are now all about the money and sucking the life out of the game, which they would like to see in the Olympics someday.

Which just goes to show that no matter what you're playing, how you're playing or where you're playing it, some things never change.

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