Sepak Bola Api: Playing Football With Fire

As a child, one of the first things you learn is this: fire is dangerous. You must stay away from the fire, it’ll hurt you. This is a valuable lesson. One which sticks with you throughout later life, and prevents you from doing crazy things like washing your hands with fire. Or eating an apple that’s on fire. You know, things that might considerably cause issues for you and your precious skin.

But what if you grew up not learning such a lesson? What if you grew up living in a world where fire is something to be played with? Those that play Sepak Bola Api, live without that ordinary fear of fire. This is an Indonesian game that’s a variation of football. And that variation is the ball being set on fire. Oh, and you must play bare-foot too.

We’ve covered niche versions of football recently, like another Southeast Asian game called Sepak Takraw. We’ve also had a look at water-based variations of sports, like Underwater Hockey. Hell, we’ve even examined the “sport” of Wife-Carrying, which isn’t a variation on anything except carrying wives. Sepak Bola Api is different though. Because despite the weirdness of those other sports, they’re still vaguely normal. They have governing bodies and even compete in regular, global tournaments. Sepak Bola Api isn’t organised. It just… happens.

The only guiding principle behind Sepak Bola Api is that it’s played during the holy month of Ramadan. And that’s it. The idea behind the game seems to be a test of your courage, amidst frankly terrifying circumstances. Here, we see a group of women playing a game as if it’s just a normal, everyday kick-about:

How do people get to this point? How can you find yourself involved in an impromptu game of fireball? Is it purely down to religion, or do you just love the idea of crackling skin? Let’s break down the key stages of how you play a match of Sepak Bola Api.

The Fireball

Like any sport, you need equipment. As this is football, the ball is the most important bit of equipment needed. Except an ordinary football won’t do here. If you try setting the latest Nike ball on fire, you’ll find yourself kicking melted rubber after about a minute. So, in Sepak Bola Api they use a ball woven from coconut. Delicious, tasty coconut, that’s now about to play a part in your future pain.

The ball is soaked in kerosene, and then set alight. It’s a procedure that might remind you of your dad lighting the pudding after Christmas dinner. That joyous moment when the old man, half-cut on five bottles of morning Peroni, pours far too much brandy on that stodgy ball of indigestion, lights a match, and then burns the paper crown off your head. Except in Speak Bola Api, no-one is drunk. This is Ramadan, remember? If you’re not particularly religious though, and find yourself about to play fireball, now might be a good time to get drunk.

The Teams

The basic principles of setting up a football game apply here too, where everyone stands in a line and the two captains (otherwise known as the “most popular” kids) pick their teammates. The decision-making process in normal, non-fire football is usually based upon skill. In fireball though, you need to know only two things: the condition of their feet and do they have that glint in their eye that says “yes, I have no issues with kicking a flaming football around. And yes, I’ll even header the f**ker if it comes near me”. This look in western culture is known as the ‘Glaswegian eye’.

The most important thing to remember when deciding who plays where, is who’s crazy enough to play as the ‘keeper. If you’re not particularly religious, and find yourself about to play as the goalie in fireball with no gloves, now might be a good time to take up religion.

The Immediate Regret

The teams are set, the coconut is aflame, and the game can now start. You’re now officially playing fireball, and that’s when the panic sets in. You look down at your bare feet, and look across at your teammates happily passing a fiery coconut around. You’re all alone out on the wing, the opposing team have seemingly forgotten you exist. The thing to do in normal football would be to scream “over here!”, but the words won’t form out of your mouth. The brain won’t let them be spoken. It understands that such a willful desire to accept a pass of fiery doom, is in direct conflict with the human need to survive.

You’ve been spotted anyway. The sweat starts to form on your brow and you can’t breathe, as the hot, hot sphere heads in your direction. It’s too late for regret. You’re playing fireball. Forget your old life, and put your feet into the fire. And try not to cry too much when you do.

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The Aftermath

When all is said and done, and when the fire is put out, it’s time to deconstruct and assess how the game went. Was the tactical setup the right one? Did the zonal marking work? How could you have suppressed those marauding full-backs better? These are none of the questions you will be asking after a game of Sepak Bola Api. Because you’ll be too busy dousing your charred feet in a bucket of cold water.

But it’s over. It’s all over and somehow, you survived. And when they suggest a re-match, you run. Run as far as your burnt feet will allow you to run. Because you must never, ever play fireball again.