The kaatsen season begins in Weidum in Friesland this weekend, but what exactly is this idiosyncratic Frisian sporting spectacular?
With a pitch that could be from Quidditch, a series of rules that seem straightforward only to those who play Eaton Fives, and a history that stretches more than 100 years, kaatsen is Friesland’s most popular sporting experiences.
In essence, it is Frisian handball, but it could easily be mistaken for a lawn tennis tournament or a football camp. The major highlight of the Kaatsen season – the ‘Permanent Committee’ event held in Franeker on the 31st of July – is one of the longest running sports tournaments in the world, having first been held in 1854. There’s even a ‘Royal Dutch Kaats Union’ (KNKB), headquartered in Franeker, which is the world authority on kaatsen.
The rules are a little complex, as may be expected of such an old game. Each team has three players, and the aim is to score into a box defended by two people from the opposing team. A player serves with their bare hand and tries to get the ball into the scoring box to score: if a defender blocks the shot, or catches the ball, or the server cannot reach the scoring box then a point is given to the ‘defending’ team.
Wherever the ball lands is marked with a small wooden block called a kaats, and the point is held to be ‘undecided’. Play then re-starts from the point marked out by the block. Scoring is similar to tennis, but points take the form of 2-4-6-game. Luckily the KNKB has an explainer, complete with diagrams, on its website.
Most kaatsen events are styled like a tournament, with the winning team taking home wreaths (which are traditionally hung on the front of their houses), and the best player is named the ‘King of the Tournament’.
What is perhaps most interesting about this seemingly idiosyncratic game is that it actually has quite a few international equivalents. Belgium and France call is jeu de peloteis played, whilst Spain, Italy, and Latin America have been playing pelotaor llargues for hundreds of years. In the United Kingdom, Eton Fives uses a similar format, albeit with a different court and scoring system.
Omrop Fryslân reports that “with the 68th Edition of the Bangmapartij in Weidum on the 28th of April, the 2019 kaatsenseason will begin”. So, if you fancy watching or trying this curiously Frisian high-octane sporting spectacular, check out the KNKB’s calendar of events and get yourself to a kaatsencompetition to see for yourself.
Photo source: Das Nili/Wikipedia