Football is a religion, so they say, and nowhere more so than in Brazil, where players and fans alike prayed (unsuccessfully, as it turns out) for their team’s victory. But even before television rights were sold for millions and sport stars became global icons, the ancient Mesoamerican ball game of tlachtli drew huge crowds, not just for its entertainment value, but also for the religious significance of the sport. By looking into this ancient game we can draw startling parallels with many sports played today. Modern competitive sport and religion often seem to be closely related. Perhaps most famously, Maradona credited his ‘miraculous’ 1986 goal to the ‘hand of God’.
Tlachtli was played in I-shaped courts, in teams or as a one-on-one game. The aim was to keep the ball in the air and propel the ball into your opponent’s end of the court using mainly the hips, points were also awarded for impressive manoeuvres and skills. 16,000 rubber balls were imported into the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan annually, giving a clear indication of the sport’s popularity which was fuelled by its religious significance. 1
The way in which tlachtli was inextricably linked to the religious sensibilities of the Maya and Aztec societies that played it is displayed through two of their creation myths the Popol Vuh and the story of Coyolxauhqui. The Maya Popul Vuh tells the tale of twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque who avenge their brothers by returning to the underworld and playing a ball game against the gods. 2 After their victory they were decapitated then reborn before vanquishing the underworld gods, ascending into the heavens becoming the sun and Venus. The Aztec story of Coyolxauhqui describes how she is decapitated by her brother Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and avatar of the sun, in a ball court. 3
Religious symbolism of the game stretched further than just their creation myths into the imagery displayed around the courts such as those at Chichen Itzá and El Tajín, where carved stone panels depict a similar sequence of life and death involving figures dressed as ball players preparing for the game and eventually being sacrificed. In these panels the sun god is everpresent, as are priests who prepare the players for the
game. 4 Although statues and banners around modern stadiums don’t, of course, suggest the players’ impending death, they communicate powerful messages about the significance of the game from spectators to players.
Like the ancient Olympics, which were in honour of Zeus, tlachtli honoured the gods to ensure their continued support and favour. In the classical world, as in modern sport, impressive athletic manoeuvres were rewarded, fans gathered to watch, victors were often highly rewarded and losers shamed.
Haven’t we seen the same in the recent 2014 football World Cup? International headlines after Brazil’s 1-7 semi final defeat to Germany were riddled with accusations of shame and humiliation for the host nation. Fans who witnessed the devastating result first hand in Belo Horizonte were broadcast worldwide with tears streaming down their face, in contrast the fan park in Berlin depicted thousands of jubilant fans. Luis Suarez’s bite, the collapse of reigning champions Spain, the heroic tactics of Dutch coach Luis Van Gaal in replacing goalkeepers before their quarter-final penalty shootout victory all provoked profound responses – pain, joy and disbelief.
Similar emotions would have been evident centuries earlier in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica as victorious ball players were showered with gifts, losers (in ritual circumstances) would be sacrificed and the spectators, who gambled so heavily on the game that it was not unheard of that they sold themselves into slavery, displayed contrasting emotions. The devout following, heroics of the players, constructed courts and popularity of the sport seem very similar to modern football. How often do we see fans with their hands together praying for a result? Aren’t players’, fans’ and managers’ pre-game rituals similar to religious ceremonies?
The methods may differ but the ceremonial nature of sport has remained. The procession of two teams, the national anthems, the coin toss, all contribute to our modern idea of sport just as the sacrifices to the gods, creation myths and symbolism of tlachtli did for Mesoamerica. And as the World Cup draws to its climax, even without the prospect of human sacrifice we can be sure that the final will be, for many, not only a spectacular, but also perhaps something approaching a spiritual experience. But I suspect that, even while some fans will pray for their team’s success, in most cases it’s the players who will be worshipped, not their divine counterparts.
Alfred Reynolds has just graduated from the University of Sheffield with a BA in History. His dissertation focused on the Mesoamerican ball game and, until recently, he was Head of Sport at Forge Radio. You can find him on twitter @AlfredReynolds5.
Header image: Ball players performing for Charles V in 1528 from Christoph Weiditz’s unpublished costume book [Wikicommons]
Inset image 1: I-shaped ball court from Codex Borgia, f.45 [Wikicommons]
Inset image 2: Brazil vs Germany at Belo Horizonte, World Cup 2014 [Wikicommons]
- L. Vernon and D. Scarborough (eds), The Mesoamerican ball game (Arizona, 1993), p.vii. ↩
- Marvin Chodas, ‘The Symbolism and Ritual Function of the Middle Classic Ball Game in Mesoamerica’, American Indian Quarterly 2.2 (1975), pp. 108-110. ↩
- Mary Ellen Miller, ‘The Ballgame’, Record of the Art Museum 48.2 (1989), pp. 22-23. ↩
- Vernon L. Scarborough, ‘Courting the Southern Maya Lowlands: A Study in Pre-Hispanic Ballgame Architecture’ in L. Vernon and D. Scarborough (eds), The Mesoamerican ball game (Arizona, 1993), p. 135. ↩