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.