Thai-Style Elephant Football – A Truly Great Experience

This article is a submission for the Soccerlens ‘Share Your Football Experiences’ Contest; to participate, please read the details here.

This is a story of somewhat different proportions. The background is different, and so is the sport — but it is still all about football. This is a story of a long and exciting road to a game of good old-fashioned football.

Years back I visited South East Asia with my parents and two brothers in our summer holiday. We were on the move with stuffed up backpacks and our walking shoes. After a couple of weeks in and out of cities and wandering the outback, we headed north. The destination was Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, where we had a 7-day treck lined up. We arrived, and the treck started. Our guide was a very kind native man, whose name I have long forgotten. By walking, elephant riding and river rafting (on genuinely selfmade rafts that we built from logs of wood already prepared for us just to tie together) we strode north towards The Golden Triangle, a place infamous for its reputation as a drug central for Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Allegedly (and probably correct at the time at least), drug dealers shipped their drugs from there and down the Mekong River to be sold in the rest of the world.

On the fourth day we had walked for 4 hours or so and started to feel the strain in our legs, when we arrived at a small village for a good solid meal. After our lunch we knew, it was time to go, so we prepared. We tied our shoes and arranged the backpacks. We had a surprise coming for us, though. Arriving at place of departure we knew, we were in for a treat. Our treck was not to continue by foot. Three elephants were lined up, and so our journey toward an extraordinary game of football continued on the backs of these magnificent animals. They strolled through the rain forrest carrying us and our backpacks as if we were not there. It was marvelous and peaceful at the same time. The elephants were to carry us to a larger village, where we would spend the night on the wooden floor of an elevated house. It was elevated to keep snakes and other interesting animals at bay. It was in this village, we would experience a peculiar, but still great, display of football skills.

We had supper and enjoyed the tales of a native wise man, whose stories were famous in the region and, most likely, bore no truth. The beasts he had fought, and the times he had crossed swords with  The Grim Reaper would have no end, and so it was up to us to decide how much to believe. No matter how ridiculous his stories sounded, his way of telling them left us in doubt — was he the Indiana Jones of Thailand?

Anyway, the next day we woke up with splinters in our backs from the floor and were ready for breakfast. And breakfast we had. After eating, our guide came up and told us to get our cameras ready, because he had something, he would like us to see, and he knew that we would want to take pictures of it. We followed him through the village, and we could see, he was very excited. We came around a corner, and there was a little boy kicking a leather ball up against a wall. When he saw us, he kicked the ball to me, and I kicked it back. We passed the ball a couple of times to each other, and I wondered, if that was what all the fuss was about. Our guide grined. He waved his hand and said “come on, this way”. The boy was obviously not the attraction. So a good 100 meters further through the village, and we were there. And I was truly amazed, as was the rest of my family. There, in the middle of a big square, were two goals of regular size and a football of massive proportions. Kicking it were 10 elephants, playing a little 5 on 5. Each had a human controlling its movements, but the kicking was all elephant. Obviously it was arranged for tourists, and so we realised that there were quite a few other foreigners there, who also enjoyed the spectacle.

The game went on for 15 minutes, and to my recollection it ended with a 4-3 win for the elephants wearing the red saddles. The highlight of the game was when a blue elephant hammered the ball into the top corner leaving a Bruce Grobbelar-clone of an elephant with no chance. It was mostly just kicking the ball. No stepovers and no falling over by the slightest of touches. There was no running with the ball and crossing from out wide, but there was good fun. Tactics were laid aside for a day, and I doubt that Rafa Benitez or Arsene Wenger would ever adopt the playing style of these two teams. The game was far too open for Benitez and too little based on quick passing for Wenger. But it is my claim that both of them would have enjoyed the match, if they had been there.

Tomas Hemmer-Hansen

This article is a submission for the Soccerlens ‘Share Your Football Experiences’ Contest; to participate, please read the details here.

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  1. Marco Pantanella 8 December, 2007
  2. Tomas 8 December, 2007