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For all its commercials, hard hits and field-long passes, the US Super Bowl has nothing on the size, scope and history of England’s Royal Shrovetide Football Match.

Played over two days every year since at least 1667, the match involves the entire town of Ashbourne in Derbyshire (population 9,000) aiming to move a specially-designed leather ball that’s a bit bigger than a standard European football through the streets, to one of two goals north and south of the town centre. Regardless of where in town they live at the time of the match, residents play for a specific team based on their birthplace; those born north of Henmore Brook, the river that splits the town, are known as Up’ards and must goal the ball in the old Sturston Mill while those born to the south are called the Down’ards and score at the old Clifton Mill.

The game starts at 2 pm on Shrove Tuesday (known as Mardi Gras in other parts of the world) with a guest of honour throwing the ball to the crowd from a raised brick structure in the town centre known as the “plinth”, specially created for the annual matches. The ball then moves around the town by a large group of players known as a “hug", similar to a scrum in rugby in that the large groups from both teams push against each other to try to move the ball. Because of the large crowd, the ball is rarely kicked, but it is legal to do so, as well as throw and carry it, though the ball cannot be moved via motor vehicle. Since there are few other rules, shops board up their storefronts the event and most people park their cars far from town.  

If players score a goal before 5 pm on Shrove Tuesday, the first ball is retired and a new ball is put into play. Otherwise, the day ends after the first goal or at 10 pm if neither team has scored. The match resumes the next day at 2 pm, following the same timeline. Any player who scores a goal gets to keep the hand-painted ball, which carries a new design each year.

This year’s game starts on 12 February. Visitors to Ashbourne are welcome to play or just follow the ball as it makes its way around town, but the honour of goaling – scoring by hitting the designated structure of each mill three times – usually goes to a well-known and well-practiced local.

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