What do you think is Argentina’s national sport? It has to be football surely, hundreds of thousands of people streaming through turnstiles every week to fill the stadiums? Wrong. Ok maybe tennis at a push, very popular again, Argentine players litter the top 100 rankings. No, try again. The more cynical amongst us might say protesting, eating beef or hoarding monedas, but again you would be well off the mark. The actual sport of the nation plays like a cross between polo and basketball, frequently ends in broken bones and used to be played with a live duck.
I am, of course, talking about Pato.
A Potted History of Pato:
Just as football was popularised in England through mass games between villagers taking a rest from working the fields, the sport was established by gauchos breaking up the tedium of watching their herds in the Argentine pampa. There are written records of pato being played as early as 1610, and complaints of its violence and risk of injury and death dating from 1796.
The name comes from the role played by the aforementioned unfortunate duck (pato in Spanish); instead of a ball, the duck was placed in a basket with handles around it and tossed between mounted players, with the object of scoring in a net at the end of the field. Back in the game’s formative years the definition of field was rather loose; games often were played between neighbouring ranches over miles and miles of empty countryside. And just as football in the middle ages was subject to church and state repression for its perceived immorality, so did pato face the iron fist of the authorities – numerous decrees in the 19th century sought to outlaw the sport, and by the turn of the 20th the sport had largely diminished.
The sport however resurfaced in the 1930s, more regulated and standardised than before. Ducks everywhere breathed a sigh of relief as their role was eliminated from the game, instead modern pato is played with a leather ball resembling a volleyball, surrounded by six wooden handles for easier grip- important when trying to scoop the ball up on a horse at full gallop.
The game slowly gained respect as an organised, proper sport, and was even declared Argentina’s “national sport” in 1953 by President Juan Perón, in an acknowledgement of pato’s role as a symbol of Argentine nationalism and the gaucho spirit which endows its citizens. It was never able however to match either the popular appeal of football or the upper-class allure of polo, and today it remains a sport primarily for aficionados and agricultural workers in the sprawling countryside that surrounds Buenos Aires.
These Men Can Ride!
After a season ravaged by an unusually wet Buenos Aires spring and many frustrating weekends of cancelled matches, I was able to witness pato first hand on a beautiful December afternoon. Taking place in the “home of pato”, a sports ground located near the Campo de Mayo military complex, two games were played that were to decide who played in the grand finale the following week.
The most striking aspect of the sport is the incredible skill shown by the riders. The players often find themselves hanging off their steeds at high speed to pluck the ball off the ground, and the nerve and steady hand to throw the ball into the basket while galloping and being harassed by opponents is very impressive.
Even more so when you consider none of the players are professional; the majority are farm workers who play the sport in their spare time, directly mirroring the gauchos of old. Sebastian Tuñon, one of three brothers who play the sport professionally, explained that “we don’t have the money in pato that polo has, for instance. None of us can give up work and play professionally; indeed it probably costs us because none of the equipment comes cheap. We do it however because we love the sport and we love playing it.”
The Perils of Pato
Injuries are also common, with broken bones a frequent result of falling off a horse awkwardly. The risks however seem part of the attraction for many of the competitors, and certainly add an edge to proceedings. At least however injured players can return; unfortunately on occasion horses will fall and break legs, and in this case they must be destroyed – often on site. My companion informed me that this had occurred at least twice at meetings she had witnessed, and sadly when I was there a horse appeared to be facing the same fate, forlornly limping around the field after a nasty fall. Again though this appears to be part of the game; when I asked some audience members about this aspect a shrug of sad acceptance seemed the most common reaction.
Game’s Over? Let’s Eat!
The games are hard-fought and competitive, with much banter and insults flying between opposing sides. Eventually however at the end of the day the teams that were to compete in the final were revealed. El Siasgo defeated El Relincho Pueblo Chico in the first game of the day 21-13 to book their place, El Relincho being punished despite some skilled horsemanship for poor accuracy in front of the net, while El Siasgo appeared to have a laser guide attached as almost every shot found its target. In the other semi-final El Relincho Mangrullo comfortably saw off the challenge of El Relincho de la Criolla, and indeed went on to lift the championship weeks later beating El Siasgo by the slimmest of margins, in a thrilling 14-13 victory.
Despite the competitiveness and intensity of the game, however, this doesn’t preclude close friendship and camaraderie between opposing players. As someone more accustomed to the pettiness and spats that are constantly a part of professional football, it was refreshing to see players embrace each other at the final whistle, congratulating or commiserating each other before retiring to the sidelines for a well-earned rest. As Sebastian explained, “yes there is a lot of rivalry between teams, everyone obviously wants to win. But all finishes when the game ends, off the field we chat to each other and help each other out, and at the end of the day we share a massive asado and some beers together, and any bad will disappears.”
Horses, broken bones, hulking great slabs of meat cooking on a barbecue and above quiet respect and camaraderie between men taking a break from life in Argentine agriculture. Much has changed since the days of the gaucho in Argentine society, but through Argentina’s national sport at least the reckless spirit and ignorance of danger so reminiscent of the gaucho spirit continues to survive and thrive.
The pato season returns from its summer break at the end of February. To find out when and where the matches take place visit www.pato.org.ar, the official website of the Federation. It is in Spanish, but click calendario 2010 for an easy to read guide to the pato schedule.