When you think of Argentina’s national sport what do you think of? Football, possibly tennis, maybe polo… It would have to be one of these sports, right? Try again. The actual national sport of Argentina is a cross between basketball and polo, frequently ending in serious injuries, and was historically played with a live duck.
Drumroll please…. The national sport of Argentina is Pato. Pato, which means ‘duck’ in Spanish, was originally played with a live duck inside of a basket with handles. The duck was used as a ball, and tossed from mounted player to player, with the goal of scoring in a net at the end of the field. In the game’s early years, Pato matches were often played between neighboring ranches over miles of empty countryside.
Records of Pato being played in Argentina, date back as early as the 17th century, while complaints of the sport’s violence date back to the early 1800’s. The Catholic Church strongly disapproved of how the sport was played, that they prohibited the game in 1882 and refused to bury Pato players in Catholic cemeteries. Under the iron fist of the authorities, and numerous decrees seeking to outlaw the sport, Pato’s popularity largely diminished at the turn of the 20th century.
However by the 1930’s the sport resurfaced, featuring more regulated and standardized rules. Ducks throughout Argentina breathed a sign of relief as their role in the game was eliminated and substituted for a leather ball surrounded by six wooden handles easier for gripping. With these advances, Pato players were able to easily grip the pato while galloping at full speed towards the goals.
Over time the game slowly gained respect as an organized, proper sport. In 1953 President Juan Perón declared Pato as Argentina’s national sport, acknowledging the sports role as a symbol of nationalism, and the guacho spirit it endows on its citizens. Although Pato has never had the allure or popular appeal of football or polo, it remains a sport for agricultural workers and aficionados in the countryside. The majority of Pato players are farm workers who play the sport in their spare time. Even as the national sport of Argentina, Pato is an amateur sport, meaning that those who play the sport financially support themselves elsewhere.
A Pato team is comprised of four players on each team, and eight horses. The horses are rotated constantly to avoid fatigue, as the game is played at a fast speed with few breaks in between, centered around the passing and stealing of the pato while on horseback. To no surprise injuries are commonplace. All of the Pato players I talked to emphasized that the risks of playing are part of their attraction the sport. Players find themselves hanging off the horses at incredible speeds picking the pato off the ground, gallop off to throw the pato in the goal while being chased by other players on horseback. It is a sport played by men, guacho men, men of strong heritage and culture, people not shy of a broken bone or two.
The Pato scene in Mendoza is not as strong as it is in the North of Argentina, in provinces like Chaco. However, it is slowly regaining recognition thanks to the efforts of Lucas Sbriglio, a veterinarian based in Maipu, who has dedicated a great deal of time and effort into organizing a Pato group in Mendoza. This local Pato group meets once a month, on the last Saturday of the month, at Parque Chachingo in Maipu. Their goal is to join together people of all socio-economic backgrounds in Mendoza, to play a traditional Argentine sport and share the traditions and culture of their ancestors.
The continuance of Pato as the national sport has seen some resistance. In 2010, Pato hit headlines throughout the country, when a bill was introduced to change the national sport of Argentina to soccer. Senator Emilio Alberto Rached proposed the bill saying that soccer was more of a working class and inclusive sport, while Pato was exclusive and more costly. Pato advocates countered this statement by saying that Pato is 100% indigenous to Argentina, while soccer was brought into the country by the English Football Association. In the end the bill was not passed and to this day Pato remains the national sport of Argentina, and its fans keep its tradition alive.
“In order for our society to continue growing,” says Lucas Sbriglio, “we need to water our roots.”
By Molly Hertz