If you’ve ever been to a beach in Southeast Asia, you’ve probably seen locals kicking around a woven twine ball like you would a hacky-sack.
This recreational activity is also a popular competitive sport, called sepak takraw. Meaning ‘kick’ (sepak) in Malay and ‘ball’ in Thai (takraw), the volleyball-style game is popular in those countries as well as others in SEA, including Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
The game dates back to the 1820s and was even part of Siamese school children’s curriculum. The game has since spread throughout southeast Asia and although they don’t necessarily fare well at international competitions, many other nations (including the UK, US, Canada, and more) have also fielded national teams.
How to Play
Sepak takraw is an over-the-net type game played on a badminton-sized court. Two teams of three players stand on each side of the 1.5-meter-high net and volley the ball back-and-forth using their heads, knees, chest, and feet–anything but their hands.
Originally made of fiber strips from the rattan tree, the game’s ball is firm with a little give and is now of synthetic rubber.
To start a point, the grapefruit-sized ball is tossed by one of the two players standing near the net back to their teammate near the baseline (called the ‘tekong’ position). The tekong then volleys the ball over with a strong kick, and the point is live.
From there, the game pretty much resembles volleyball (minus the use of the hands). A typical match is best-of-three sets, won by being the first team to 21 points. The serving side then alternates every three points.
As you might imagine, the game demands a supremely high level of coordination, finesse, and flexibility.
A typical rally sees a player control the opposing team’s attack, another teammate loft a high pass to the remaining teammate, who finally drills the ball back over the net with an acrobatic overhead kick.
If you’re already a champion muay thai kickboxer, kicking this high might be no big deal to you. If you’re like the rest of us, it would be wise to spend a lot of time working on flexibility (and foot-eye coordination) before trying to play takraw with the locals.
Takraw At The Highest Levels
With just over 30 member nations, sepak takraw is not yet enough of a global game to be included in the Olympics. Instead, several other major competitions serve as the aim for the sport’s athletes.
Perhaps the most prestigious is the King’s Cup, played annually since 1985 in honor of the King of Thailand.
The King’s Cup is almost always played in or near Bangkok (to the dismay of other participating nations, who consider the Asian Games to be a fairer test of skill) but the event is not officially sanctioned by the sport’s governing body, the ISTAF.
Instead, the ISTAF’s crown jewel is the semi-annual SuperSeries. The series runs in a season format, with four tour-type stops taking place over the course of a year. So far, Thailand has dominated the competition, with their men’s and women’s teams winning gold in all three editions of the tournament.
The tournament’s marquee matches often taken place in packed arenas as high-energy as any soccer match and broadcast to millions more on national TV.
Seapak takraw also has its own annual World Cup competition and has been contested in the Asian Games since 1990 and the Southeast Asian Games continuously since 1973.
The Future of Sepak Takraw
For many sports, growing international presence means growing pains, and takraw is no exception.
The men’s doubles final at the 2011 Southeast Asian Games ended in a refereeing controversy, after hosts Indonesia were accused of being given favoritism in their gold medal win over Myanmar.
In the match’s final set, the Myanmarese players were so disgusted with the officiating that they took off their uniforms in protest, temporarily halting the game before resuming their eventual defeat.
As if the lack of international parity wasn’t enough, the president of the ISTAF’s parent organization, SportAccord, recently made some disparaging digs at the International Olympic Committee.
While this probably didn’t help the sport’s case for Olympic inclusion, a beach-version of it will be featured at the 2019 World Beach Games in San Diego, bringing the game to a whole new audience.