Football Mad

Misisng the thrills of Euro 2004, or the mud of Glastonbury? Then get yourself to Finland for next weekend's Swamp Soccer World Championships (just don't forget your wash-bag). By Christian Nink
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The Independent Online

Read and Hombre from the Dutch Antilles team look as if they're running in slow motion. The ball is only five yards from them, on the edge of the penalty area. Three paces, a shot, goal - easy. But not in the world of swamp soccer, where the pitch is a bog and the players are up to their hips in mud.

Read and Hombre from the Dutch Antilles team look as if they're running in slow motion. The ball is only five yards from them, on the edge of the penalty area. Three paces, a shot, goal - easy. But not in the world of swamp soccer, where the pitch is a bog and the players are up to their hips in mud.

Held in the marshy surroundings of Hyrynsalmi, a tiny village 400 miles north of Helsinki, the Swamp Soccer World Championships are a major sporting event. Every July this bleak, remote region close to the Arctic Circle - "the land of the starving", as it's called in sad folk songs - plays host to more than 10,000 fans, throwing a 24-hour sporting rave and pulling in around €1m. It's Euro 2004 meets Glastonbury, with extra mud. At last year's championship, 264 teams of men and women from seven nations competed, and next weekend, when the event kicks off again, the majority of these jolly masochists will be thrashing it out once more.

Legend has it that swamp soccer was invented by a Finnish soldier, posted here with his comrades in the Nineties for fitness training. Among the witnesses was an eccentric hippy by the name of Jyrki Vaananen. He worked out a set of rules for all this formless floundering f and contacted the Finnish Football Association. Five years on, this unsightly version of the beautiful game was born.

On a surface like this, falling over is essential - if you don't there's no way of getting your foot under the ball. Conceding "throw-ins" is to be avoided: booted from the hand by a player on the firm ground at the edge of the playing-field, these are far easier to place than free-kicks. It's a game of two halves, each lasting 13 minutes, on a pitch measuring 65 by 38 yards. An energy-sapping endurance test, there are six players on each side and frequent substitutions - without a strong squad, you've no chance of surviving even the early stages.

When the final whistle blows, the players head for the ice-cold lake in the woods, where they rinse the muck from their boots, socks and selves. There's a sign affixed to the bathing platform: Ala Hypaa - "Do not jump" - and an image of a crossed-out beer bottle. Both rules are immediately broken by the blonde beauties of the Suomineidot team, whose ghetto-blaster adds noise pollution to the idyllic scene. After a freezing bath, they head for the sauna. There's one for men, one for women, and a unisex facility with a large window overlooking Field No 1. Between the games, in the catering tent, fans and athletes gather to guzzle beer and cider, while live bands play Finnish tango on the wooden stage.

Forty women's teams are here. The Kicking Chicks are a Belgian-English-German-Hungarian team, and it's clear from the quality of their game that this is their maiden tournament. None the less, the Chicks have prepared themselves like true professionals. They're sponsored f by a tiler from Helsinki, and have brought their own masseur, who doubles as their personal cocktail barman. They also have their own mascot - a girl dressed as a chicken, yelling words of encouragement through a megaphone as they flounder their way to defeat. But in Hyrynsalmi, what counts is the spirit, the sheer delight the players take in this utterly gruelling but beautifully silly sport.

The tournament lasts two days; on Saturday the preliminary rounds, on Sunday the finals. At the end of a day's play, the teams head back to their living quarters in buses provided by the organisers. The log cabins are filled beyond capacity, the balconies draped with still-dirty washing, and players singing along to Elvis. In the restaurants, it's karaoke non-stop. At the Vonka camping ground, members of a team called Père Lachaise (in memory of Jim Morrison) are perspiring in the sauna of their converted bus. In the festival marquee and on the sandy beach at the lake, people are dancing and drinking, flirting and having fun. Under the midnight sun, 4,000 active participants join the fans and locals for a wild party.

Hoarse, hung-over or shagged-out, the teams that have survived until Sunday still have a hard day's play ahead of them. Finnish TV and radio broadcast the games live to an expectant nation. But in the end, to adapt the immortal words of Gary Lineker, it's a game in which 12 players run around after the ball, and in the end a Finnish team wins (although a team from Scotland does walk away with the Fair Play Cup). Tomorrow, squads of cleaners will get to work in the open-air arena, filling four sacks with the boots and socks they pull from the mud. E

Visit www.swampsoccer.net for details

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