Football’s crazy spin-offs
© AFP

Like history, football tends to repeat itself. Most fans would have it no other way, but others keen to prevent the sport becoming routine have riffed on the beautiful game to produce disciplines slightly out of the ordinary. FIFA.com now whisks you around the world for a look at some of football’s zaniest offspring.

While Beach Soccer and Futsal have long since earned official recognition, leading to FIFA World Cups on both sand and court, certain other surfaces may face a long wait before catching on. The inhabitants of Bourton-on-the-Water are probably alone in watching games disputed in a river, for example, but for the last 100 years or so the tradition has held firm. Towards the end of every August, the players of Bourton Rovers FC divide themselves up into two teams of six and take to the Windrush for 30 minutes of fluid action, an annual occurrence that never fails to attract thousands of spectators. No doubt the half-time trout sandwiches are a particular treat!

In the Netherlands, meanwhile, the expressions ‘diving in the area’ and ‘hitting it deep’ took on a fresh meaning when members of a diving club filled their oxygen tanks, grabbed their masks and snorkels and started kicking a ball around the bottom of a swimming pool. The inventors of underwater football nonetheless had the good sense to make things a little easier on themselves by leaving their flippers back in the changing room.

We train the elephants every day to kick the ball and avoid stepping on other players.
Pattarapon Meepan

The idea clearly caught on because in the run-up to UEFA EURO 2008, Vienna organised a match between Germany and Austria in a large pool. With four-time free-diving world champion Christian Redl pulling their strings, the hosts came away celebrating a 10-5 success, but their watery win was cancelled out a few weeks later when a sumptuous Michael Ballack free-kick earned revenge for Germany on grass.

No less wet but a good deal dirtier, Swamp Soccer, or Mud Soccer as it is alternatively known, has become a popular discipline in Scandinavia since rising to prominence in Finland thanks to the efforts of Jyrki Vaananen, known to his peers as the Swamp Baron. The first tournament featured just 13 teams back in 1997, but today more than 200 sides slosh about in the ooze hoping for glory every year, with the championship held either in Sweden, Iceland or the United Kingdom. Half the fun comes from the team names, and spectators can look forward to a derby between Real Mudrid and Unathletico Mudrid or a grudge match pitting Hurt of Mudlothian against Mudchesthair United. Anyone considering having a go themselves might like to heed some advice from the official website, though: "Don’t forget to take out insurance.”

Mammoth encounter
Of course, it is not always necessary to change the surface underfoot to offer a fresh take on football. The protagonists themselves can change – or, at least, how they go about playing the game. Visitors to Argentina might like to take in a game of Pato, for example, an equestrian discipline combining polo and basketball, while the American sport of Horse Soccer leaves the kicking to the animals themselves as the riders attempt to steer them towards the right goal.

Making the most of local resources, the Thai equivalent swaps the equine element for elephants – and the footballing pachyderms could soon have the scouts on their tails. In 2004, a prison in Thailand’s former capital, Ayutthaya, organised a match between a team of elephants and a team of inmates, and the game ended 5-5 after the humans no doubt struggled to win any headers or tackles. “We train the elephants every day to kick the ball and avoid stepping on other players,” explained Pattarapon Meepan, one of the handlers. Not the most reassuring insight, perhaps.

That variation on a theme is far from being the most dangerous, however, with the honour for most foolhardy pursuit shared between Fireball Football – the name says it all – and Matador Soccer, a game played with a bull instead of a referee.

Fortunately, not all of football’s close relations are reserved for the courageous, the unconscious or both. On much safer ground, the more cautious among us owe a debt of gratitude to Tottenham Hotspur fan Harold Searles Thornton, who in the 1920s came up with Table Football to enjoy the sport he loved in his own front room.

But like history, football tends to repeat itself, so to prevent the table version becoming routine a real-life alternative was invented. The rules were given a slight tweak, 11 players face off against 11, and the human contestants now go about their business on a pitch measuring 68m by 105m. Some say it could yet become a global success!