Georgians cherish anarchic traditional ‘rugby’ game
A huge scrum of men surges across the village of Shukhuti, crashing through fences and gardens as hundreds battle for victory in ex-Soviet Georgia’s anarchic traditional version of rugby.
With no rules and no holds barred, the game — known as Lelo — is only played once a year and only in this rural hamlet, where the local men hurl themselves into the churning melee of bodies with little regard for their own safety.
“Lelo is our national heritage and we must cherish it,” explained one of the players, taxi driver Robinzon Kobalava.
Teams representing the upper and lower halves of the village grapple violently with each other as they try to force a heavy leather ball into a river on the opposing side’s half.
Anyone who wants to play can join in whenever they feel like it, and the side that gets the ball into the river first is the winner.
Before the annual match, the ball is filled with earth and topped up with locally-produced wine until it reaches the required weight of 16 kilos (35 pounds), then carried through the streets to the local church, where an Orthodox priest looks after it until the game begins.
“Lelo is about valour and courage. It is about the love of freedom,” said the priest, Father Saba Jgenti, a former wrestler who also used to be an enthusiastic Lelo player himself.
The heavily-bearded cleric then clasped the ball to his powerful chest before tossing it into the air above the waiting crowd of players in the traditional start to the game.
Lelo was first played to commemorate victory in a nearby battle more than 150 years ago, when a small Georgian force managed to rout a much stronger army of Ottoman Turkish invaders, said the game’s self-appointed historian, Tamaz Imnaishvili.
According to local lore, when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union, the Communist authorities wanted to ban the annual contest because of its links with Orthodox religion.
“Lelo is part and parcel of Georgians’ collective historical memory,” said Imnaishvili, who lives in Shukhuti and works for a local newspaper.
“It symbolises Georgia’s centuries-long striving for freedom and the struggle against foreign invaders.”
Lelo is seen in Georgia as an indigenous variant of modern-day rugby — a sport which has become increasingly popular in the country as the national team has become more successful.
Georgia won the European Nations Cup tournament for the fourth time this year and recently recruited All Blacks legend Sean Fitzpatrick as an adviser to help raise the small but ambitious country’s profile in the world game.
The national team — known as the Lelos — got their nickname from the traditional village sport, and want to take some of its combative spirit with them when they travel to New Zealand to compete in the Rugby World Cup later this year.
“It’s impossible to play rugby without a special spirit and attitude,” said Giorgi Mamardashvili, a spokesman for Georgia’s rugby federation.
“The Lelo attitude will be with us in New Zealand.”
Two hours into this year’s Lelo match, shirts had been torn and bodies bruised, but finally the men of Upper Shukhuti managed to muscle their way to their opponents’ riverbank and score the decisive goal.
After the game was over, the match ball was taken to the cemetery and placed as a tribute on the grave of a young man who died during the past 12 months, in a ritual which has been observed for decades.
Candles were lit, then wine was poured and toasts were raised to friendship, as the two competing sides came together to celebrate their unusual but much-loved sporting tradition.
“Lelo is a violent sport, but after the game we all are friends and neighbours again,” said Robinzon Kobalava, whose side was victorious this year.
“Lelo is a shared joy for all of us, no matter if you are a winner or not.”