Documenting the passed | ‘Cane ball’ trapped on celluloid

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Burmese lads play chinlone sometime in the 1890s. Photo 430/15(63), Oriental and India Office Collection, British Library. Photographer: Watts and Skeen.

Mandalay, Burma | Dry dispatches announcing chinlone tournaments appear occasionally in the New Light of Myanmar, the mouthpiece of Burma’s military regime. The terse pronouncements show that despite the political and economic torpor and the governing junta’s Orwellian logic—the capital recently was relocated from Rangoon based partly on the forecasts of astrologers—a taste for the beauties of “cane ball” remains.

The New Light of Myanmar, affectionately known as NLOM, of 2 Oct 2004 reports on the previous day’s coordinating meeting for the Prime Minister’s Cup:

The minister made an opening speech. Afterwards, the president of Myanmar Chinlone Federation reported on holding of the competition. This was followed by a general round of discussions.

It makes you glad that you did not have to be there. By far a better option for appreciating the native forerunner of football, and a stylistic relative of the Chinese tsu-chu or the Japanese sport of kemari, would be to attend the world premiere of Mystic Ball. The chinlone documentary screens on 1 May as part of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto.


The film, according to the media release, tracks Canadian Greg Hamilton‘s romancing of the sport from beginner to a player capable of joining the mystical circle of six. Along the way, Hamilton, the film’s director, metaphorically “juggles feelings of bliss and self-discovery with occasional bouts of self-doubt and inadequacy.” He nevertheless plays in this brutally repressed society during a televised chinlone event at a major Buddhist festival.

In the excerpts available on the movie’s website, we see the ritualistic game in full flower. Teams of women, men and children whisk the ball in a moving circle, centered in a small arena full of transfixed faces, many of them monks. The game provides for a “soloist” in the middle of the circle, while teammates keep the ball aloft with quick flicks and leg thrusts.

The ball is woven from rattan. It makes a distinctive clicking sound when kicked that is part of the aesthetic of the game. Players use six points of contact with the ball: the top of the toes, the inner and outer sides of the foot, the sole, the heel, and the knee.

… Over the centuries, players have developed more than 200 different ways of kicking the ball. Many of the moves are similar to those of Myanmar dance and martial art. Some of the most difficult strokes are done behind the back without seeing the ball as it is kicked.

Hamilton meets the “Golden Princess” Su Su Hlaing, a chinlone solo artist. The solo performances, including juggling while balancing on a tightrope and while navigating jump ropes, which also happen to be on fire, are the province of women. One sees why Hamilton says that the game, judged on style rather than victory or loss, helps create an “intensely focused state of mind, similar to that achieved in Zen meditation.”

An ancient clay figure of ball player, discovered near Veracruz. (Copyright © Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Cologne)

The Mystic Ball, however, does not represent the only World Cup–timed celebration of a football forebear. On Friday, the cultural program of the World Cup, in Hamburg, begins hosting reenactments of the ancient Mayan ball game of pok ta pok. The intent is to reconstruct a match as it might have been contested in ancient Mesoamerican cities such as Chichen Itzá, complete with ritualistic features and recognized pok ta pok competitors from Mexico.

The sport, similar to the Aztecs’ tlachtli and dated to as early as 1400 BCE, involves propelling a rubber ball with lower arms, shoulders or backsides (not the head or feet) through a raised ring. In addition to Hamburg, curiosity seekers in Dresden, Mainz, Bremen and Berlin will be able to attend performances.

Trying to make its own link to football’s beginnings, the German Patent Office must look to more recent history in its exhibit “FuíŸball und Technik.” While acknowledging Great Britain with creation in 1886 and 1887 of the inflatable ball and pump, the Germans take credit for the black-and-white hexagonal pattern that has become the recognized ball design of film and clip art. It was also a German patent that conceived a radio transmitter to determine a ball’s exact position. Alas, the system was not perfected in time for this World Cup.


We thank “Desde la Tribuna” for guiding us to the material on Mystic Ball.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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