Aqsaqtuk - Football On Ice

There are times when undersoil heating might just not be enough.  Domm Norris doesn't want to see an ancient game forgotten.

One of modern football's major phobias is the weather. A blanket of snow can threaten the schedules of leagues right across Europe and leave football fans thirsting for the inclement conditions to pass. Despite the facilities that football stadia now possess, in most cases, Mother Nature still holds the upper hand.  But what of those people who have lived through the harshest of weather and still manage to play a form of the game we crave to witness.

It is difficult to imagine how you could possibly play a game of football on anything other than a hard, flat stretch of turf or concrete. However, the Arctic region's Inuit population have been doing so for centuries - since the 1600's, long before the English Football Association was founded - in a game that was widely known as 'aqsaqtuk', roughly translated as meaning 'football on ice'.

Let's not, however, confuse this game with the sport that we know and love today. Aqsaqtuk is a game that bears some obvious similarities to modern football due to the action of kicking a spherical object being the primary feature.  But there are also equally obvious differences. For example, certain accounts of aqsaqtuk claim that the Inuits laid out goals that were literally miles apart, spanning from one Inuit village to another. It was a difficult, physical game that required endurance and strength as the vast open plains made for a playing field far greater than anything one could possibly comprehend. Thus the games were long, drawn out affairs that were the source of great pride for the communities who participated.

The Inuit settlements labelled their aqsaqtuk teams after the local wildlife - which often tended to be birds - in an expression of local identity. There have been various accounts of teams playing under the guise of the Ptarmigans - the white tailed ptarmigan was a common sight throughout the mountainous areas of North America, particularly Alaska - and the Long Tails. The naming of the teams also often held significance as to which direction the goals would be placed.  If a team was named after an animal whose natural habitat revolved around water, then they would shoot towards the sea while teams named after land animals would shoot towards the wilderness. It was a simplistic, quaint tradition that was an expression of the Inuits connection with their surroundings - whether it be the wildlife, the climate or the vast open plains of water and land.

Aqsaqtuk was played with a ball that modern footballers would most likely be terrified of putting their foot against. A blend of animal hide held in place by whale bones and stuffed with a variety of tightly knit feathers, moss and hair.  This makes the spherical object a far cry from the technically produced balls that court such extreme levels of controversy today. But the ball in aqsaqtuk wasn't necessarily produced to be played with skill and precision as the game often revolves around a style that many would classify as kick and run - perhaps Fabio Capello has been researching the ways of aqsaqtuk. The gap between the opposing goals often meant that kicking with great distance was a far more effective means of moving forward than dribbling with the ball at your feet - especially when you consider the snow and ice that players were forced to battle against during a game.

The similarities between aqsaqtuk and football are fairly startling and such instances can also be witnessed in the manner in which the game was seen as a way of joining different communities. The competitive nature of aqsaqtuk meant that games weren't played between members of the same group of tribesmen - but separate villages who came together and played against each other. This premise of competition is something that has survived through the centuries and is one of the key components of football as it stands today. But the bringing together of the surrounding villages was not seen as a skirmish but more as a celebration in bringing together people who may rarely have crossed paths. The celebratory element of football is an important facet of the modern game - you need only look back at the World Cup in South Africa for proof of this - and aqsaqtuk understood the power of linking the spherical ball to the idea of celebration - the Inuit people fully understand its power of unity.

The game of aqsaqtuk also held spiritual and religious connotations for the Inuit people. The northern lights were viewed as being a sacred phenomenon - as it was believed that the spirits of those who had passed away lived on within the spectacular lighting effect that beamed across the sky. It was believed - in a particularly strange ritual - that these deceased spirits actually played an everlasting game of aqsaqtuk with a ball made from the head of a walrus. It is difficult to understand the spiritual link between the game and the spirits of the dead - however it simply goes to show the significance of how sports and games can hold such strong connections with so many people that it becomes a sacred bond.

But while aqsaqtuk was a game played during the 1600's, does it still exist in the modern era? In short the answer is no. The modernisation and spread of urban living throughout the areas of traditional Inuit society has meant that their nomadic existence has dwindled over recent decades. The game of aqsaqtuk has seemingly been lost in time as the likes of crude forms of baseball and improvised athletic based sports - such as gruelling sprints through thick layers of snow - have managed to maintain their popularity over an extended period of time. However the game of aqsaqtuk does live on in the form of football and the basic principle of kicking a ball - which is an action that billions of people across the globe are able to do regardless of conditions. The transformation of the Inuit's way of life throughout the 20th century - which saw a gradual abandonment of their nomadic existence and the implementation of technology in everyday life meant that more urbanised ideals were lost.   While aqsaqtuk may not be prevalent now, it is simply a symbol of how the world is in a constant process of change. Aqsaqtuk may not have stood the test of time but a descendant, modern football, continues to go from strength to strength.

Domm writes regularly for IBWM and if you would like to read more from him please visit the excellent excellent football ramblings.