Page last updated at 15:46 GMT, Thursday, 4 November 2010

Learning how to play Czech football-tennis

By Mike Wendling
BBC News, Czech Republic

From Afghanistan to Brazil, there is a worldwide passion for football, but in the heart of the Czech Republic a related sporting pastime has a special, popular following.

"What's the name of this sport again?" Those words, spoken by one of our team-mates, minutes before the first match, did not exactly inspire confidence.

For the record, the sport is called nohejbal - in English, football-tennis.

Nohejbal being played
Nohejbal is a mix of football and volleyball played on a tennis court

Two teams made up of three players each, play over a low net - kicking or heading a football until it goes out or cannot be returned.

For 20 years, the village of Myslin in rural Bohemia, about an hour south of Prague, has been holding a local tournament.

And for 20 years, local teams have been battling for bragging rights.

But this time around, inspired by a half Czech friend about to get married, a group of us went on a somewhat unconventional stag, or bachelor party — ready to challenge the Czechs at their own game.

Our base was the groom's family home, perched on a hill in front of the lush forest behind the village.

We arrived the day before the tournament began. Some training was in order.

We made our way down the dusty path, past barking dogs to the village green, where the mayor and a few friendly tournament organisers helped string up the nets.

My own team showed brief, brilliant flashes of ability, but we were overcome by the deadly consistent local sides

You might think that nohejbal would combine the strength and stamina of football with the speed and grace of tennis. And perhaps, at its highest levels, it does.

But our first attempts at the game were stuttering efforts.

Much of the evening was spent determining the rules, trying to control headers and volleys, and fishing the ball out of the nearby river.

Still, old skills were brushed off and basic strategy was discussed - should we choose a 1-2 formation, or a 2-1?

With a sense of mildly nervous anticipation, we set off back into the woods in search of a local bar.

Local rules

Nohejbal was invented in the 1920s in the old Czechoslovakia.

Apparently, a Prague football squad started kicking a ball over the rope - history does not recount why they got bored with the original game.

Nohejbal being played
Local rules can apply such as a fine for putting the ball in the river

Unlike the English, who have exported games like football and cricket only to see other countries excel at them, the Czechs have not made a huge amount of headway in spreading their sport worldwide.

There is a ruling body which includes a seemingly random collection of eight countries - including Macedonia, Argentina, and Northern Cyprus.

But, I got the feeling that the real game is local and recreational - like five-a-side football in England, or softball in America.

The morning following our training session, as we prepared for group-stage battle in the baking heat, a ripple went through our contingent as our hosts translated the rules.

Among them, a fine of 200 Korunas (about $10 or £7), for booting the ball into the river.

So, now not only might our performance prove embarrassing, it could cost us money.

Still, we charged out onto the pitch.

A hybrid sport originating in Central Europe in 1922
Members of the Federation International Footballtennis Association include the Czech Republic, Slovakia, France, Hungary, Brazil, Switzerland, Austria, Romania, Croatia, Macedonia and North Cyprus
The game is played on a tennis court with a net dividing the two halves
Rules vary on issues such as the ball bouncing and team sizes which can be single players, doubles, or triples
Like volleyball, players must hit the ball over the net, but using their feet or head

In the first match, the opposing team smashed through our defences - and a blocked shot smashed through my sunglasses.

It was over in a matter of minutes, leaving us bruised and slightly stunned.

Time for some refreshment — greasy fried kolbasa sausages and cold Czech beer.

At the bar, I started chatting to a local competitor.

"I saw your team playing out there," he said.

I fished for a compliment - some encouragement - or any hint whatsoever that this nohejbal veteran might have seen some untapped talent out there on the pitch.

"How'd we do?" I asked.

"Hmm," he replied. "You lost."

And mostly, we kept on losing, though we did get better, and as a result the tournament got slightly more fun.

In fact, one of our two sides managed to win one game, sparing us a total whitewash.

My own team showed brief, brilliant flashes of ability, but we were overcome by the deadly consistent local sides.

One last point caromed off our ace striker's knee. I made a mad dash to prevent it from ending up in the river, diving at the last second, to no avail.

As the sun went down over the pitches, we lined up a few more beers and a few more sausages, and a band started to play a few traditional Czech tunes.

The day's feats were picked over, highlights were discussed, and the villagers were eager to chat.

After several more drinks, our fine for kicking the ball into the river was forgiven - or perhaps, forgotten.

We promised to come back next year, having practised a bit more, and we consoled ourselves with the thought that as the game is not well-known, that back in Britain we were probably ranked near the premier league of nohejbal teams.

Who knows, it might yet catch on. You might see groups of young men awkwardly kicking a ball on a tennis court - trying desperately to keep it away from a nearby stream.

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