It’s Just Not Polo!
By Nick OlleMarch 15, 2012
Welcome to the world of pato – a gentleman’s game with a history of violence.
The national sport of Argentina is football, right?
Subsidised by the government, broadcast and re-broadcast ad infinitum on public television, football is a national obsession. There is even a "Maradonian Church" (after Argentina's football great Diego Maradona).
Playing Pato, Argentina
But despite its lofty status, football is not the national sport of Argentina.
Nor is tennis, hockey, polo or any of the other popular sports in which Argentina excels.
The national sport of Argentina, as decreed by then-President Juan Domingo Perón in 1953, is pato. And it could hardly have a more colourful - or violent - history.
The modern game pits two horse-mounted teams of four against each other on a 220-metre-by-100-metre field. The object is to score goals by throwing the pato - basically a volleyball with six handles attached - through a vertical hoop.
The first known written account of pato was recorded by Spanish military anthropologist Félix de Azara in 1610, 200 years before the 1810 May Revolution that paved the way for Argentina's independence from Spain.
In the words of Ricardo José Fernández, president of the Argentine Pato Federation: "We have 200 years as a nation and 400 years as a sport."
The sport Azara described, though, was a far cry from contemporary pato. For starters, the pato - Spanish for "duck" - was the real, web-footed, flat-billed article.
The field of play was bound only by the competing estancias (ranches) and as such could be upwards of 15 kilometres long. With teams comprising 10 players or more, the result was a free-for-all in which no duck, horse, player nor spectator was safe. The Argentine Pato Federation created this video recreation of how pato might have been played hundreds of years ago.
According to pato's most celebrated player, Dante Spinacci, it was not uncommon for "two or three" people to die in pre-20th century pato games.
It should come as no surprise then that pato has been condemned and banned several times in its history. The first time was in 1739 in the city of Santiago del Estero, in a move officially decreed by Buenos Aires mayor Martín Rodríguez in 1822.
Rules of the sport were drawn up by Alberto Castillo Posse, and the ban on pato was subsequently overturned in 1938. The sport of pato has been enjoying its latest revival since the mid-1900s.
Speaking to The Global Mail at the National Novices Pato Tournament in the town of Chivilcoy in Buenos Aires province, Spinacci, 57, insists modern pato is a "gentleman's game".
Like most of the male onlookers, Spinacci is wearing a boina - a kind of beret favoured by Argentine gauchos (cowboys). He moves between groups of players and fans and is clearly revered by everyone.
"He's the Maradona of pato," says one young player, "a legend."
Spinacci is a year into his latest retirement. Last year he was coaxed out of retirement to play with the La Guarida team and won his 10th national title, three decades after winning his first. And he'd broken a previous retirement to come back and win the 2002 national title, also with La Guarida. "I've had a lot of luck."
He says it is final this time, and that he now simply enjoys passing on his wisdom to the next generation of players, which can include women, though there are presently no female players. Most important, he says, is to respect the "physicality and velocity" of the sport and to remember that "your adversary is not your enemy".
Before the end of the day we see three players fall from their horses and one ambulance intervention. And all this as families watch from the sidelines.
"The sport is quite dangerous if you play it well and within the rules," Spinacci says, "so you can imagine that if you played it with bad blood like a crazy person there could be ugly accidents.
"People that play outside of the rules are eliminated and can be suspended for a long time; it is best if they don't come back at all."
And it's not just the players at risk.
"Yesterday one of my best horses was killed. Everyone cried because she had a great history and had competed in big tournaments, but these things happen and you just have to give her a kiss and move on," Spinacci says.
"You can have 20 matches or 100 matches and nothing happens, but then in one match horses are killed and players are trampled."
Despite the obvious similarities between pato and polo - and Argentina is the world polo champion - pato enthusiasts insist the sports are very different.
Spinacci, for example, says the only likenesses are the horses and the number of players.
"I do both, I played pato well and I played polo badly, but I love them both because of the horses," he says.
The two sports also have a handicap system in common. Spinacci was an elite "10-goal" pato player and, despite his claims to mediocrity, a very respectable, four-goal polo player.
There is, however, one sport that is almost identical to pato: horseball.
Directly derived from pato, it was invented by the French Equestrian Federation in the 1970s.
Argentina's best pato players will travel to France in November 2012 to compete in the Horseball World Cup.
Photo by Nick Olle.
Photo by Nick Olle.
Photo by Nick Olle.
Photo by Nick Olle.
There are now approximately 3,000 pato players competing in 45 associations across 15 of Argentina's 23 provinces. It's played essentially by the well-to-do from Argentina's countryside.
In 2010 the Brazilian sports brand Topper began a campaign to topple pato as the national sport - and elevate football.
But the campaign was strongly resisted both in pato circles and publicly, and Topper backed off, softening its language to suggest football be included as "a" national sport.
Ricardo José Fernández of the Argentine Pato Federation ridicules opposition to pato's status as national sport.
"It would be like changing the national bird from the hornero or the national flower from the ceibo," he says.
"There are plenty of roses and not many ceibos but the national plant is the ceibo, and there are loads of pigeons in the Plaza de Mayo but the hornero is the national bird.
"This is the same. Football is the most popular sport, there is no doubt about that, but pato in the countryside and in smaller towns, as you're seeing here, is very popular."