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SHUKHUTI, Georgia — Every year, hundreds of Georgians gather on Orthodox Easter in April for a sporting match that makes rugby seem tame.
Called Lelo Burti, this notoriously brutal game originated three centuries ago and was once played across Georgia. Now, a match is only held once a year, in one place in the world: Shukhuti, a village in the west of the country. An even more ancient form of the sport, called Burtaoba, dates back thousands of years.
Watching this muddy and bloody sport gives an insight into how this Caucasian nation with a population of just 3.7 million carved out a place for itself at rugby’s top table in this year’s World Cup, alongside heavyweights such as New Zealand, South Africa and France.
Lelo Burti has barely any rules, no time limit, and no set number of players.
The match features two teams — Zemo (Upper) and Kvemo (Lower) Shukhuti — and a 16-kilogram ball, which is made from scratch each year by stuffing a leather casing with mostly sand, sawdust and wine.
The ball is stored in the local church before kick-off at 5 p.m., when a priest brings it to the center of the village and throws it into the thronging mass of participants, this year numbering in the hundreds. Their aim is to get the ball past their own goal — by any means necessary. The first to do so, wins.
This year’s match lasted just 60 minutes and saw Zemo Shukhuti claim victory.
As tradition dictates, the players then carried the ball to the local cemetery to rest it on the grave of a respected person. That honor this time went to Aleksandre Mgeladze, who died last year shortly after participating in the game.
While rugby union has now taken over as Georgia’s national sport, Lelo Burti hasn’t been fully relegated to the past; at the World Cup in France, kicking off in September, expect to hear Georgian fans chanting: “Lelo, Lelo, Sakartvelo!” (“Score, score, Georgia!”)