Keith Elliott at Large: Square Mile gladiators in the round: Fast-moving City slickers make the most of a frozen asset as big financial institutions flex their muscles

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The Independent Online
THE RABBLE in the cheap seats are baying for blood. White, white sand stained in strange patterns by slaughtered Christians. Soaring hundreds of feet into the night sky, executive boxes ring the circular arena. Patricians sup wine from distant Gallia or Hispana, and nibble delicacies - quails' tongues, sturgeon eggs, rare fruits as people fight and fall and die.

Blink.

Switch to modern London from ancient Rome. The arena's surface is ice, not sand. Those strange patterns are the sponsor's corporate logo etched in the ice. And this is broomball, not life with the lions. But out in the centre, they're just as serious about winning as those gladiators.

Broadgate Arena, England's only outdoor ice rink, is well named. It's easy to imagine the ghosts of centurions, lumbered with a Londinium posting the way today's Army welcomes a spell in Londonderry, nodding their approval at events on the frozen pond.

Then again, my imagination could be inspired by the product from one of the pubs and wine bars encircling the ice rink, a slingshot from Liverpool Street station. But what better place to watch the City's finest, dealing with each other in a manner that even the Stock Exchange wouldn't allow?

Not that it is easy to do much harm to your opponent at broomball. As well as being well wrapped to ward off the chill of the ice, the four-person teams (for women play as well) are garbed in helmets, knee and elbow protectors, while goalkeepers wear face-masks, too.

The ball, about the size of a melon, is soft and sluggish as a football after your dog has had a few hours chewing it. The 'brooms' are little larger than a beach spade, and the hitting end, armed with a plastic head like a badly made waffle, trundles the ball at a leisurely pace across the ice.

Unlike ice hockey, where mayhem is the name of the game, broomball is a non-contact sport. Players wear trainers rather than ice skates, so most of the time they are battling to keep their balance rather than depriving an opponent of theirs.

That said, when two rivals meet, the non-contact rule (2b: no body checking or deliberate obstruction) is not always strictly observed. In the last series, one player broke a rib. Paul Rabey, whose Lasmo Oilers team are the reigning champions, said: 'It's inevitable that there is physical contact, because you are often struggling to keep your balance.'

Rabey's side have overcome this by buying special broomball shoes ( pounds 70 a pair, though probably cheaper than the trainers most City folk normally wear). With multi-suckered soles that look like a skinned octopus, these grip the ice better. Like a day in the markets, any sort of edge is vital - especially if it starts to get rough.

'It can get like ice hockey,' Rabey, a 27-year-old senior graphics operator, admits. 'When we won the final, it was a very physical match.' The 10-minute match saw four players sent off and incidents of fisticuffs. The losing finalists were Makakonu, a team from Kankaku, a Japanese securities company, who had won the previous year. They are daunting opponents. Most of the six-man squad are top-flight hockey players, such as Paddy Osborn, an ex-England indoor captain. Others play in the national league for teams such as Slough and Southgate.

The captain is the intimidating Jonathan Page, a 6ft 4in, 16st trader in convertibles and warranties, and probably the only person in the 115-team league to have played ice hockey. He plays in goal and says: 'It's hard to get past me because I fill up the goal.' A keen rugby player, he is supported at the back by his brother Matthew, an ex-London Irish stand-off.

Makakonu have sworn to regain the title this year, but face stiff competition from banks, advertising and PR companies, investment companies and brokers. For the Exco International Broomball League has become the darling of the Square Mile, and particularly those sharp, rich, derided young men who work hard and play even harder. Broomball, even more than softball or playing dice with plastic pigs, has become the City game.

Don't let the game's apparent silliness or its links with the sometimes disreputable elements of the City fool you. It's pretty good to watch: fast, absorbing and skilful, requiring teams to work together. And it's said to be even older than ice hockey.

Broomball, so the legend goes, started in Russia and was originally played by children on the streets of St Petersburg and Moscow with a broom and a pig's bladder. It gained popularity among Westerners in the 1980s, when it was played on Moscow's frozen tennis courts by diplomats, journalists and businessmen using five-rouble twig brooms bound with sticky tape.

There is now a world broomball championship every year in Canada, while the Australians are reputedly very keen on the sport (acute observers may spot a marked similarity of style between City brokers and Australian males). Two other British rinks have adopted the game. Where next? The Olympics?

(Photograph omitted)

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