All About Pato: Argentina's National Sport
Argentina’s National Sport
When you think about popular sports in Argentina, world famous athletes like Messi and Maradona are probably what come to mind. But while fútbol may illicit intense passion and polo may draw out the posh bourgeoisie, neither of these popular past times respresent Argentina’s national sport.
So, what is the official game of Argentina? You’d be forgiven for not knowing the answer, the unexpected national sport of Argentina is even off most locals’ radars. It’s Pato, a uniquely Argentinian game that dates back to the beginning of the 17th century.
Pato: The National Sport of Argentina
Pato is a blend of polo and basketball (with a touch of Harry Potter’s Quidditch). The ball is made of leather and features 6 equi-distant handles. Pato may be Spanish for duck but no ducks are harmed in today’s version of the sport. Brutally, that has not always been the case (more on that later!).
There are four players per team, each one a highly skilled rider. Pato’s ultimate goal is similar to basketball, ride to your end of the field and toss the ball through the hoop for a point. But with the players on horseback, galloping at full speed while jostling for control of the ball, it is much more exciting than basketball.
Each rider (or jinete) is required to use their right hand to handle the ball with their arm extended out as if offering the ball to their opponent. This allows for some of the most exciting moments of the game, the cinchadas (seen below): when a rival player takes hold of the ball and the two riders rush down the field pulling back and forth for control.
Pato’s Violent History
Pato is Spanish for duck. So yes, the name of the sport translates directly to duck, and no, things don’t end well for the duck. Instead of the PETA-friendly ball that is used today, a leather hide sack with a live duck inside was the “ball.” And things weren’t only rougher for the duck, things were much more violent for the players.
Gaucho’s lived hard lives in the 1600’s. And as the saying goes: work hard, play hard. The game often turned violent, with players even being trampled to death in the melee. In 1796, the church went as far as excommunicating anyone who played it. And by 1822, the government had officially prohibited Pato. All ducks slept in peace in 1822.
In 1937, Alberto de Castillo Posse revived the lost Argentine sport. He modeled the rules after those of polo, designed the saddle and the ball, and the idea of 6 players (later reduced to the 4 you see today).
My Pato Experience
I have been dying to see a juego de pato since I heard of the sport’s existence. It may have taken me a while, but the stars aligned and I finally made it to a tournament in the small provincial town of Chascomus. I’d been to a polo game once in Buenos Aires. I had expected something similar but was met by something completely different.
There was no stadium, just the neighbors of Chascomus and us three Americans sitting on the grass next to the field. People were friendly and down to earth, ready to explain the rules to us whenever we got the courage to ask. Each game was much shorter than I expected. The four quarters were completed in under an hour, so we stayed for two games.
How to see Pato
If you want to see a game of pato for yourself while in Buenos Aires, then you're in luck. It's actually very easy because the Pato & Horseball Federation are very well organized online (which unfortunately isn't always the case here in Argentina). First, check the schedule on the official website here . Check the dates and cities under the "Calendario" tab.
Follow up three days before the actual tournament by checking the official Facebook page here . We were going to a tournament on Saturday and on Wednesday night the schedule was confirmed on Facebook. If conditions aren't ideal (for example, if it's rained they can't play without ruining the field), it may be canceled or postponed.
While polo is usually played in the heart of Palermo in Buenos Aires, Pato tournaments are generally in smaller towns an hour or two from the city center. You may be able to get a bus there depending on the town or hire a transfer, but it's best to rent a car. Check rates here to rent a car for your pato adventure.
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