Buzkashi, as it is officially known, is a Central Asian sport in which players mounted on horseback attempt to place a goat or calf carcass in a goal. Buzkashi literally translates as “goat pulling” in Persian. This rather socially obscure and seemingly barbaric game is similar to polo in its execution, except the ball in polo is replaced by a headless goat that players manoeuvre around the field they play on.

Traditionally, players on horseback (or yak) are struggling to take control of a headless goat carcass in an attempt to drag it to a designated hole/flag/zone. However, a degree of perspective may be applied in order to understand this sport partly. The goat (or calf) is decapitated and disembowelled, followed by the severing of its legs at the knees and then a further soaking of the body will take place for 24 hours in order to harden the flesh and toughen the hide before being used in the game. 

During the troubled time of the Taliban regime, the sport of Buzkashi was originally banned in Afghanistan, as the Taliban has strongly considered the sport immoral in nature. Times have certainly changes and Buzkashi is now hailed as Afghanistan’s national sport. However, as the sport was reinvigorated later on in the country, similar games are played in other Central Asian ethnic groups such as the Kyrgyz, Turkmens, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Uyghurs, Hazaras, Tajiks, and Pashtuns. Games similar to Buzkashi in their execution are known as kokpar, kupari and ulak tartysh, in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and as kökbörü and gökbörü in Turkey, where it is played. Also, in western China, buzkashi also occurs similarly in the form of yak buzkashi among Tajiks of Xinjiang. 

Buzkashi game during winter time in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo Credit: Wikipedia.org

In Afghanistan, buzkashi is a national sport and a ‘passion’ mostly unknown to many other societies. The games are often played competitively on Friday’s as this is the first day of the weekend in Afghanistan (their end of a week is Friday and Saturday; they start their work week on a Sunday). Matches draw normally thousands of fans across areas of the country. Notably, it is vehemently forbidden for non-Afghan’s to attend any of these matches.

David, a Kildare man, has built a business in Afghanistan and has worked there for over ten years. He recounts of one time he managed to see a portion of a buzkashi match live. He describes the experience as “something that definitely shocks, but what I noticed wasn’t the headless goat being pulled around, but the skill that goes into this game”. David continues, “Obviously as an Irish man, I am not accustomed to seeing something which is an example of extreme animal cruelty in Ireland and over the majority of the world; but the fact of the matter is, this is their national sport and they are extremely passionate about it and it shows when you watch the game and can see the enthusiasm for the game from locals”.

Today, the best Buzkashi players in Afghanistan have sponsors, which are backed by rich influencers who crave a higher reputation by their peers. Comparably, sponsoring a buzkashi player is alike to wealthy oligarchs of professional sports teams buying clubs and franchises of their choosing. Some matches of buzkashi draw in thousands of spectators making it not only Afghanistan’s national sport but also it’s most lucrative as of recent years.

A less graphic display of the sport in action. Photo Credit: Author

Quite obviously, any animal rights activists will be understandably repulsed by the actions involved in this sport. However, the popularity of buzkashi shows no signs of letting up anytime soon. For this game to be understood in other parts of the world where it is deemed barbaric, it would require a fresh understanding which is not likely to happen. Afghan culture and its people are not concerned about gaining acceptance by other nations and cultures as they hold high esteem for their tradition and don’t seem to be worrying about their “beloved” sport changing anytime soon for the country.