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the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

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Mystic Ball

A couple of months ago, when I wrote about the soccer-like Burmese sport called chinlone, I mentioned a documentary about the game, Mystic Ball, that I was hoping to track down. Not long after the post went up, I got an email from the director, Greg Hamilton, who was nice enough to send me a copy of the DVD. I’ve finally had a chance to watch it, and I want to recommend it to anyone who’s interested in the aesthetics of sport, the morphology of soccer, or the essential question of why we want to play games with balls to begin with.

To my mind—you can see this on the first-ever post on this site—the answer to the last question is deeply bound up with tribalism and violence. We have a compelling desire to split off into separate groups and kill each other, and because that’s a desire that can’t be accommodated in its purest form by civilization on a large scale, the structure of sport provides a metaphor and simulation of conflict while protecting us from its real-life consequences.

I still think that’s a meaningful element of organized western sports leagues, but chinlone rewires the question in all kinds of provocative ways: it’s a noncompetitive game that demands as much physical skill and dedication as any competitive sport, it’s a thrilling spectator experience whose purpose is to induce a state of deep concentration and trance, it’s a flurry of kicking and spinning that’s almost martial-arts-like, except that its basic intent is only to be beautiful. It’s the style aspect of sport drawn out by an intense form of teamwork rather than by conflict, and—as you’ll know if you watch the movie—the players do things that will absolutely blow your mind.

Mystic Ball is an unpretentious and straightforward account of Greg Hamilton’s attempt to learn chinlone and to be accepted within the culture of the game in Burma, and what it made me think is that shared focus and cooperation is as basic a goal in sport as physical confrontation. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of that aspect of team sports before—Ajax players during the Michels/Cruyff era used to talk about how they shared the same mind while they were playing—but when it takes place within a competitive framework it always seems to be essentially an advantageous by-product. The culture of chinlone makes it instead seem an equally fundamental constitutive power in the game.

I don’t mean this as some kind of Zen critique of competitive western sports: I can be troubled by the implications of hostility in, say, the Belgrade derby, but I also like the conflict of competition. It makes for better stories, for one thing, which is a sign that, troubling or not, it partakes of a human universality. But it’s still fascinating to consider what remains in sport when the desire to kill your opponent is taken away, and chinlone suggests that that remnant can be as exciting and beautiful as a game with a score and an enemy.

You can buy the Mystic Ball DVD here. Anyone who gets really into this can go to Greg Hamilton’s chinlone camp this summer in Myanmar; learn more about that here.

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Mystic Ball

by Brian Phillips · April 9, 2009

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