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Chinlone, the Football-like, Dance-like Sport of Burma

Reader Jakob sent this video of the Burmese sport chinlone under the heading “A taste of Asia’s soccer potential?” And actually, chinlone may be derived from the ancient Chinese sport Cuju, which FIFA calls the oldest form of soccer in the world.

This video’s been making the rounds of soccer blogs and sports sites for the last few days, and somewhere along the way a funny tagline got added to it to the effect that this was “a new sport that’s like soccer, only interesting.” We can debate the merits of the last part of that description, but there’s nothing new about chinlone; it’s been played for over fifteen centuries and has developed a highly formalized, almost ritual set of customs and rules.

From Wikipedia:

A team of six [chinlone] players pass the ball back and forth with their feet and knees as they walk around a circle. One player goes into the center to solo, creating a dance of various moves strung together. The soloist is supported by the other players who try to pass the ball back with one kick. When the ball drops to the ground it is dead, and the play starts again…

Chinlone is over 1,500 years old and was once played for Burma royalty. Over the centuries, players have developed more than 200 different ways of kicking the ball. Many of the moves are similar to those of Burma dance and martial art. Some of the most difficult strokes are done behind the back without seeing the ball as it is kicked. Form is all important in chinlone: there is a correct way to position the hands, arms, torso, and head during the moves. A move is considered to have been done well only if the form is good.

The game is noncompetitive—there’s no opposing team, and the object is to play beautifully and achieve a particular mindset. It seems to exist right at the point where sport converges with art, as a combination of football, dance, martial arts (this reminded me again of the connection between Brazilian football and capoeira), meditation, and a kind of aesthetically super-amplified hacky-sack.

Chinlone was the subject of a documentary called Mystic Ball that was released in 2006, and that’s apparently the source of this footage. It’s only just out on DVD, and I haven’t seen it, but I’d love to track it down. Has anyone else come across it?

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Chinlone, the Football-like, Dance-like Sport of Burma

by Brian Phillips · February 9, 2009

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