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Lelo: The Muddy, Bloody Game That Packs A Punch In Georgia

The game of lelo (goal) makes rugby or American football look dainty. It was once popular across Georgia and some historians believe it goes back as many as 300 years. But it is now only played once a year in a single village in western Georgia called Shukhuti. The two parts of the village play against each other. There is no limit to the number of players on each team. The objective of the game is to bring the ball to the opposing team's end of the village. Whoever does it once, wins. (Giorgi Gogua of RFE/RL's Georgian Service)

Lelo is played once a year, at Orthodox Easter. On the eve of the match, the entire village comes to a service at the local church.
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Lelo is played once a year, at Orthodox Easter. On the eve of the match, the entire village comes to a service at the local church.

The next day, the ball is brought to Shukhuti from Tbilisi, where a new ball is sewn every year. The ball is filled with sawdust and sand in the village.
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The next day, the ball is brought to Shukhuti from Tbilisi, where a new ball is sewn every year. The ball is filled with sawdust and sand in the village.

The ball weighs 18 kilograms. As the locals add the filling to the ball, the priest blesses the players.
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The ball weighs 18 kilograms. As the locals add the filling to the ball, the priest blesses the players.

Once the ball is ready, it's brought to the church.
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Once the ball is ready, it's brought to the church.

At 5 p.m., the priest throws the ball into the center of the village, where the players are assembled. The match begins!
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At 5 p.m., the priest throws the ball into the center of the village, where the players are assembled. The match begins!

The first injured players are seeking help within five minutes of the game starting. Most will try to rejoin the action later.
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The first injured players are seeking help within five minutes of the game starting. Most will try to rejoin the action later.

The roughest place to be is close to the ball. Everyone is trying to grab it and push a few meters forward.
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The roughest place to be is close to the ball. Everyone is trying to grab it and push a few meters forward.

Some of the injured are too badly hurt to rejoin the match.
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Some of the injured are too badly hurt to rejoin the match.

Lelo doesn't only attract local residents. People come from all over Georgia -- and even from abroad -- to see the game.
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Lelo doesn't only attract local residents. People come from all over Georgia -- and even from abroad -- to see the game.

No matter what the weather, the match goes ahead.
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No matter what the weather, the match goes ahead.

Dozens of players push as hard as they can, trying to move the ball toward their opponent's end of the village.
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Dozens of players push as hard as they can, trying to move the ball toward their opponent's end of the village.

This match was won by the Upper Shukhuti team, which dominated from the beginning. Lower Shukhuti won last year.
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This match was won by the Upper Shukhuti team, which dominated from the beginning. Lower Shukhuti won last year.

A player died during this year's match. Forty-eight-year-old Gocha Pirtskhalaishvili succumbed to a heart attack.  
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A player died during this year's match. Forty-eight-year-old Gocha Pirtskhalaishvili succumbed to a heart attack.
 

After the match, according to tradition, the ball is brought to the grave of the person who died most recently in the village. And that's it -- at least for another year.
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After the match, according to tradition, the ball is brought to the grave of the person who died most recently in the village. And that's it -- at least for another year.

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