The Arichipelago of Indonesia is filled with many fascinating cultural aspects and has a deeprooted connection with football! One of those highlights where everyday celebrations intertwine with football is the game of Sepak Sawut, or “fire football”.
Sepak sawut or fireball football. A special touch to the beautiful game that is dominantly being played in central Kalimantan also known as the island of Borneo. Just like a regular game of football, two teams compete against each other, but instead of a normal ball, they set the ball on fire! The ball is made from dried coconut parts, glued together with coconut oil and drenched in kerosene.
The players rub (red)toothpaste on their legs to prevent their skin from burning. Which seems to work except for the goalie who dives on the fireball when necessary and sometimes catches the on-fire football in his arms. The people of Kalimantan love it and shout and support the brave players while occasionally diving away with “ooohs” and “aaahs” when a misdirected burning coconut flies into the crowd.
Luckily, during the history of this rare game, there hasn’t been a player or supporter who caught fire while playing the traditional game. The special toothpaste should be applied to the whole body in order to prevent body hair from catching fire due to the rain of sparks released after a player hits the ball.
Sawut football itself is a traditional game in Indonesia, only in certain areas that recognize and play it. But for the people of Central Kalimantan, the game of Sawut football used to be very popular with the community.
“This game is played at night, so it looks blazing and spectacular”
It was said that the game of Sawut in Central Kalimantan was only played in certain events which became a tradition for generations. The game was usually played at events where people achieved fortune after farming, a wedding, or succeeding in other parts of life. But nowaday the Sawut football game is rarely being performed at events in the community, so witnessing the traditional game has become rare.
One of the underlying reasons the ceremonial game is played with a ball of fire is the ancient belief that fire could scare evil spirits. Some communities soak the coconut ball in kerosene for more than a week to achieve the highest possible flame. The higher the flame, the more scared the spirits will be according to the legendary tales.
As described earlier, the game slowly disappears but if you still would like to get a chance to see it with your own eyes, we would recommend you visit Isen Mulang Cultural Festival in Kalimantan! This annual event hosts many cultural sightings like sports, dancing, parades, and more events to highlight and showcase local traditions.