ASHBOURNE, England (AP) — The strains of 'God Save The Queen' have died down by the time a local businessman, standing on a 10-foot-high plinth in the middle of a town-center car park, tosses a leather ball into a vast sea of bodies.
Hundreds of men of all ages and builds, wearing a combination of rugby jerseys, hoodies and fleeces, grapple and tussle — in fact, use any means necessary — in frenzied attempts to grab the ball.
And so begins one of Britain's most cherished, fabled and downright bizarre sporting traditions.
Played annually on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday ever since the late 1600s, and maybe even before, the Royal Shrovetide football game sees thousands of locals from rival sides of a sleepy market town in central England take part in a chaotic and often brutal contest.
The aim: To 'goal' the ball against scoring posts situated in the middle of a shallow river and three miles apart at either end of town. Injuries and black eyes are common — there have been broken legs and reportedly heart attacks, too. But it's worth all the pain to have bragging rights over your fierce rivals for the next 12 months.
Don't underestimate its importance to the locals.
"It's chaos, it's like a riot — an organized riot," says Dave Leigh, a pub landlord in Ashbourne. "But they live and die by it."
The game is regarded as a carry-over from the "mob football" matches played in the Middle Ages. These matches are believed to have spawned the global sporting phenomenon that is soccer, as well as rugby.
Many British towns have played Shrovetide down the centuries but Ashbourne is one of the few to carry on the tradition. Only twice has it been canceled, in 1968 and 2001 — both times because of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. It continued through both world wars.
And it has had the royal seal of approval — in 1928, the then-Prince of Wales (who would later become King Edward VIII) threw in the ball to start the game. In 2003, Prince Charles had the honor of being the so-called 'turner-up.'
"Plenty of people seem to have tried over the years to stop this great tradition of Shrovetide," the Prince said hours before the 2003 game, "but even over the two world wars, the men on active service wrote asking it should be carried on. Now why was it that they did that? Because, they said, it was one of the things they were fighting for, part of the old traditional England that has survived innovations and inventions.
"All I can say is you've got to keep it going, somehow or other."
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