Nigeria hosted the second annual Keffi polo tournament this month, with 16 teams participating. The so-called “sport of kings,” seen by some as an activity with complicated rules and accessible only to the wealthy, does not have a large following in Nigeria.
Nonetheless, about 3,000 fans turned out to watch the 5th Chukker Polo Club of Kaduna take on the Kano Titans in the semifinals at the Keffi Polo Ranch.
The crowd cheered as Argentinian player Manuel Crespo scored for Kaduna.
Despite what people think, he says, polo is not just for the rich.
“… you have to have horses, and that can be quite expensive, but people that like the sport can come into the market and start working with them, become like a pro,” he said. “In Argentina, we are not rich guys that play polo. We are old guys that come from the horse families, and that is why we get involved in polo.”
But what is the fascination with this sport in which eight grown men on horseback, armed with sticks, chase a little rubber ball around a field?
South African referee, Clive Mullman, has played since he was five years old.
“It’s a big thrill to get on a horse,” he said, “to control a big animal like that, move in different directions. Stopping and turning and outwitting the other players. It’s an exciting game. It’s an adrenaline-filled game.”
Each match is an hour-and-a-half. The players can change horses every chukker, or every seven-and-a-half minutes of playing time. To score, you use your mallet to knock the ball in between the goalposts.
But the rules are unfamiliar to many Nigerians.
“Basically, all the rules of polo are based on safety,” Mullman said. “It’s to keep … the horses and the players safe. It is all about the line of the ball so you don’t have people crossing in front of each other, so they don’t get ridden over, basically.”
The riders move at speeds of up to 65 kilometers per hour.
Nigerian Khalifa Ibrahim plays for the Kano Titans.
“Well, to those that are not good riders, it is dangerous,” he said. “But to me, I feel safer on a horse than in a car.”
But his team was overpowered by the older and more experienced Kaduna club. The 5th Chukkers went on to win the tournament.
The owners of the Keffi Polo Ranch say the proceeds of the event go to charity.