Is the Aztec ballgame the Mexican secret weapon?

I’ve never really been one to follow football, but like so many others I couldn’t help taking an interest in the latest New Zealand verses Mexico games. Obviously my connection with Mexico has become particularly strong through the development of the Aztecs: Conquest and Glory exhibition and even though the collegial bonds are robust, and of course I wish the Mexicans well – I really hope the All Whites win the next one despite the obvious challenges.

Mexico has a long a passionate history when it comes to football. The Mexicans were the FIFA U-17 World Champions 2005 in Peru and repeated the feat again in 2011. They are currently regarded by many as the strongest North and Central American team. I can’t help wondering if there is a connection between their highly acclaimed ball handling skills and the fact that their ancient ancestors – the Aztecs also played a ballgame that involved the skillful manipulation of a rubber ball.

The Aztec ballgame called tlachtli was played on an I -shaped court and involved passing a heavy 3 to 5 kg rubber ball by using only your hips or knees. Needless to say the game was incredibly tough and players came away with massive bruises and other crippling injuries. The game was considered to be good training for warriors.

Sculpture of Aztec warrior, 1250 – 1521.  Museo Nacional de Antropologia. Image: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes - Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. Photographer Michel Zabe

Sculpture of Aztec warrior, 1250 – 1521. Museo Nacional de Antropologia.
Image: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes – Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. Photographer Michel Zabe

The exact rules of the game are unknown but it appears that a key aim was to get the ball through a stone hoop placed on either side of the court. This was an almost impossible task, so the game was won or lost on a points system. Points were scored mainly by avoiding faults such as touching the ball with the wrong part of the body or bouncing the ball out of court.

Ballgame rings and codex image of the court in Aztecs: Conquest and glory. Photo Norman Heke, 2013

Ballgame rings and codex image of the court in Aztecs: Conquest and glory. Photo Norman Heke, 2013

There were two different versions of the game – one sacred and another recreational version. The sacred version of the game was attended by hundreds of spectators and played by elite Aztec warriors. The stakes were high for both spectators and players. Supporters often bet away their wealth and become a slave until their debt was paid off.  For the players the risk was even greater because the game could end in sacrifice. No ones really sure if it was the losers or winners that were sacrificed since it was considered an honour to be sacrificed – an end that insured your place in the heavens.

All the same, let’s hope that the similarities between the Aztec ballgame and football ends with the use of a bouncy ball and that the game on Wednesday doesn’t end in sacrifice!

One Response

  1. James

    This made me smile. The Aztecs invented football – who’d have thought?

    Reply

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