Anyone for headless goat rugby…?

The Independent

Genghis Khan’s favourite sport is huge in Afghanistan, and if its fans have their way could soon be coming to Britain

A sport best described as “mounted goat rugby from hell” could soon be transported from northern Afghanistan’s dusty plains to the green turf of Twickenham, or even New York’s Yankee Stadium, if enthusiasts have their way. Buzkashi, a game supposedly devised by Genghis Khan, pits men and horses against each other in a ferocious struggle for possession of a headless goat. Now the director of buzkashi at Afghanistan’s Olympic committee thinks it is time to unleash this spectacle on the world.

Haji Abdul Rashid is looking for a Western partner to promote the sport overseas. “We want the people of Europe and America to see our game and learn to play it,” he said. “So we are looking for a company to help us show our game.”

Any impresario willing to underwrite a match would make a handsome return, Mr Rashid says. Ticket sales, corporate sponsorship and TV rights could generate enormous sums of money.

Although there are, at present, no obvious takers for the offer, Mr Rashid’s enthusiasm is nonetheless undimmed. “In other parts of the world they have rugby, they have bullfights,” he said. “Buzkashi is the same – another dangerous game – so I believe people will like it. When you’re riding the horse, struggling for the goat, and even after you’ve grabbed it, every moment is suspense. I love this. People love this.”

Depending on which format is being played, competition is between teams or individuals or both. Riders, known as “chapandazan”, must pick up the goat carcass and either break free of the melee still carrying it, or drop it in a white circle marked on the pitch. Both versions take considerable strength, skill and courage.

The few rules forbid chapandazan from hitting one another with their whips, cutting their opponents’ saddle straps or gouging the eyes of their horses. That hasn’t stopped some participants from devising ways to cheat. One ruse is to hide a length of rope inside the sleeves of the rider’s corduroy tunic, before looping it over one leg of the carcass as he tries to seize it from an opponent or lift it off the ground. Wedging the hock of the goat’s leg behind the pommel of the saddle is another variation on the theme, and is similarly frowned upon.

Mostly, though, the sport is too unpredictable for much successful cheating. “It’s not like soccer,” Mr Rashid told The Independent. “Buzkashi is faster. And in soccer you’re in control. In buzkashi, the horse is in charge.”

The popularity of the sport shows no sign of abating in northern Afghanistan, even though terrified spectators frequently have to scatter as horses clatter into them. At a recent game in Mazar-e-Sharif on Nowroz, the Afghan new year, hundreds of chapandazan turned out to play, drawing a crowd of thousands, including the provincial governor and government ministers. “It’s always been a show of power,” said Gulam Yalaqi, a chapandaz competing in the game. “The horse should be powerful and the guy should be powerful.”

The glamour has made heroes of the best riders, who can earn hundreds of dollars for each goal scored, tucking the notes dispensed by watching dignitaries into their tunics before charging back into the fray. The day’s top prize money goes on the last round of play, with savvy chapandazan saving their energy for a final flourish.

Perhaps because the competition is fierce and colourful, buzkashi has often laboured as a metaphor for Afghanistan. For hundreds of years local khans (lords) bred horses and trained their riders. As the only members of society wealthy enough to maintain stables the sport became a demonstration of their status. “Horses start at $5,000 and go up to $80,000,” said Mr Yalaqi. “It’s like having another six members in your family.”

During the 1980s the Soviet-backed government tried to increase regulation in the hope that some of its popularity would brush off. In his masterful study of buzkashi, anthropologist Whitney Azoy recorded the story of Habib, a legendary chapandaz whose skill on the field won him esteem far exceeding his lowly background. Pressured by communists to denounce the anti-Soviet resistance, Habib later tried to atone by smuggling food to the rebels. He was almost killed in an air strike, the story goes, but his horse, mortally wounded, carried him to shelter before dying.

The account is typical of the tales that have grown up around buzkashi. The sport is a vestige of the times when everyone between the Black Sea and China lived on horseback. Hollywood has romanticised it on more than one occasion, most famously in Rambo III, when mujahideen fighters invite John Rambo to play with them before Soviet gunships break up the game. A seven-minute sequence from the 1971 movie The Horsemen, starring Jack Palance and Omar Sharif, does a better job of documenting what the sport actually entails.

Under Taliban rule, buzkashi survived despite the Islamists’ draconian bans on entertainment. Northern Afghanistan, where the sport is most predominant, never fell entirely under the movement’s sway. In those areas they did control, the Taliban forbade the use of a goat’s carcass, insisting players used an animal skin stuffed with straw on the grounds that wasting meat was sinful. Their piety was lost on chapandazan and spectators, who complained that the skins fell apart too quickly.

Since the game’s revival in 2001, the most notable patron of buzkashi has been the country’s vice-president Marshal Qasim Fahim, whose team plays regularly on the Shomali Plain outside Kabul. His generous sponsorship of the game wasn’t lost on aficionados, who Mr Rashid, the buzkashi director, says delivered their votes to Hamid Karzai during last year’s presidential election. A new class of businessmen, who have capitalised on the aid and drug money awash in Afghanistan, have also emerged as buzkashi patrons.

The sport is not exclusively Afghan. It is played across Central Asia and the region has already seen an international tournament, won by the host nation Kyrgyzstan. Mr Rashid insists that the result did not cast any doubt on Afghan mastery of the sport: his team had to ride Kyrgyz horses instead of their usual mounts.

How easy it will be to export buzkashi to countries with vocal animal rights lobbies is something Mr Rashid is grudgingly aware off. A previous experiment to stage a match in the US foundered when his American partners began introducing changes to make the game more palatable.

According to Mr Rashid, the Americans training as chapandazan said: “We should not have a real goat, we need a false one.” They said there should be no whips because that was cruel. The problem was “then it was not the real game”, Mr Rashid sighed. “Imagine playing soccer with your hands. Where would the fun be?”

Others are less traditional in their outlook. “Changes should be brought to the game and that’s only possible if it’s staged in other countries,” said Mr Yalaqi, the rider in the Nowroz game. “It could stop being semi-barbaric and start being civilised. In Afghanistan the sport isn’t properly governed. If it could be turned into an international sport and standardised so it’s acceptable to everyone, it could be as good as polo.”

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