Long before football and other team sports were played in Belize, the ancient Maya played a ball game called Pok ta Pok. Many Maya sites in the country boast traditional ball courts, Lamanai, Caracol and Xunantunich being among them. The game, which was heavily spiritual symbolizing good versus evil, consisted of two teams maneuvering a heavy rubber ball with their hips and thighs endeavoring to get the ball through the stone hoop attached to the wall on either side of the court.
In an effort to retain the Maya culture, the sport was re- introduced to Belize in 2015 in particular to the small village of Yo Creek in the Orange Walk district. The Ek’ Balam team or Black Jaguars, were established and the coach Menalio Novelo (now co-manager) led them to victory in Guatemala in 2017 for the World Tournament Championship Games. During that tournament they never lost a single game!
On their victorious return, so as to get more players to join the sport, Ek’ Balam split to make two teams, some playing in the original team, under their Captain Didier Novelo, maintaining that name and others joining the newly created Sak Xikin. In the nearby village of Xaibe another group of young men established the Xaibe Subin K’in Pok ta Pok team and these three teams practice and play exhibition matches regularly. For these friendlies, a simpler version of the game called Ulama is usually played and there is no hoop. The ceremonial part is still observed and it is customary before the game starts, to bless all four corners of the court and cleanse both players and court with copal (a burning incense that is sacred to the Maya). Traditional costume is worn.
When playing an actual tournament today, the rules may be a little different from those of the ancient Maya. Each match consists of 2 x twenty minute sections with six minutes of half time and only 4 men in each team are allowed on court at a time. Points are gained for getting the ball over the baseline or the opponents goal/hoop line. Fouls are given for touching the ball with hands, feet or head. The game is immediately won if the ball gets through the hoop (not an easy feat!) In Ancient times, the winning team was sacrificed, the ultimate honor. Today thankfully they just come away with a trophy!