Football is not ‘just a game’ in Honduras. This is a country that fought a war against neighbouring El Salvador, simply because a football referee made a flippant decision in favour of the El Salvadorian team. Football is a passion in Honduras. It is about life and death. It has been this way in Honduras for thousands of years.
The ancient Mayan civilization was awash with football supporters. There were football fanatics all the way from Mexico to Honduras. Kings had their slaves construct special playing areas, ‘ball courts’. The Mayans played a version of football that was far bloodier and more ritualistic than anything today’s fans can hope to witness or worship.
To be a football captain in the Mayan city of Copan, Honduras, was an immense honour. Forget sponsorship and footballer wives, these men received far greater rewards for their sporting triumphs.
Mayan Ball Courts
Honduras is not the greatest of football nations and the Copan temples are not the most dramatic of the Mayan’s building efforts, but thanks to the traditions of the ancient Mayans here, football and human sacrifice became entwined.
According to Maurice, one of the guides at the Copan temples, the ritual of human sacrifice didn’t exist in Copan until an unsuspecting king of Copan married a queen from northern Guatemala. Her people enjoyed building temples, fighting wars and human sacrifice. The queen came from a society that happily sacrificed their enemies and loved people to appease the gods. It was something of an honour in those days to have your neck sliced with a sharp obsidian knife.
Desperate to appease his new bride, the smitten king went along with her beliefs and decreed human sacrifice be introduced in his city.
The blood-letting in Copan wasn’t just to settle scores with old enemies or satisfying a blood-thirsty queen. The kings began to perform a bizarre self-sacrifice ritual in times of crisis. A king would use the sharpened spines of manta rays to make a public spectacle of himself.
In front of a crowd of hundreds, the king would pierce his tongue, his face, hands, legs and his genitals. A piece of paper would soak up his blood. On the paper were written demands for food, rain or whatever the people of Copan needed. The bloodied king would place the paper on an altar and burn it, pleading with the gods to help his city. When both gods and spectators were satisfied, the king would retire to his quarters to heal his wounds, no doubt hoping the next crisis to be in the distant future.
It wasn’t just the enemies of Copan who were sacrificed, however. Thanks to the bloodthirsty queen, captains of winning football teams also received this great honour. Who better to offer up to the gods than the best of the best? These football captains were immensely talented men, deserving of a place amongst the gods.
Mayan football is best described as ‘football without the foot’.
The ball was made from rubber and weighed a hefty seven pounds. The players wore a U-shaped belt made of stone, as well as padding on their shoulders, elbows and knees, to play the game. The idea was to use the stone belt and padded parts to play the game.
Sacrifical Stone and Stele
Mayan ball courts are T-shaped with grass running through two opposing stone platforms. The platforms slope downwards and the six macaw-head statues, the goals of the game, can still be seen in Copan today. The statues were built three on each side of the ball court.
The players scored points for hitting the ball against the macaw heads and lost points if the ball hit the ground. The Mayans believed that a seven-pound rubber ball smashing onto the ground would certainly wake the evil gods of the underworld.
At the end of the game, the winners were announced and the captain of the winning side prepared to accept his honour.
With thousands of people as witness, the king would mount a small pyramid in the middle of the plaza, near the ball court. The acoustics of the plaza allowed the king to easily address his subjects and no doubt he regaled the merits of the football captain to the people and the gods, who were most certainly listening in anticipation.
The king then left the platform and walked to a globe-shaped rock and tall stele. At the king’s instruction, the captain would lean backwards over the rock, his neck at the ready.
The king sliced the captain’s neck with a special, sharpened, obsidian knife. The captain’s blood flowed down a groove in the globe, collecting in a small bowl on the ground. Eventually the captain would be decapitated and his blood placed at the foot of the stele as an offering to the Mayan gods.
The king and people of Copan would feel satisfied that their hero had received the ultimate honour and that the gods had received a great offering. The hero, himself, certainly felt the honour of the occasion.
Today’s football heroes are idolised and worshipped as gods themselves, but their Olympic medallions, international fame and lucrative advertising contracts pale in comparison to the honour of being a human sacrifice to the gods of an entire civilisation.
Perhaps we don’t take the game seriously enough these days. After all, it isn’t just a game.