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Photo: Viktor Westin

Places

Picigin – A unique sport from Split

This traditional ball game from Split is played in shallow water and is the perfect activity if you’re looking for an active day at the beach.

A bay of warm, shallow, blue sea is ringed by a horseshoe of compact brown sand, backed by tamarisk trees. This is Bačvice (pronounced batch-vit-sey), Split’s main town beach, just a 10-minute walk east of Diocletian’s Palace.
Five men in swimming trunks are standing in a circle, ankle-deep in the water, hitting a small black ball back and forth, apparently at random, leaping in the air, falling in the water, shouting, laughing and splashing each other.They are playing picigin (pronounced pit-see-gin), a game unique to Split, a city famed for its sporting prowess in fields as diverse as football, water-polo, sailing and tennis. In fact, Split claims to have more international level athletes per capita than any other city in the world.So what exactly is picigin? "It started from the 1920s", says Julio Žuvela, one of the most acrobatic players. “It’s played in shallow water, in a circle of five, a quintet. It’s very simple, you must keep the ball up in the air, for as long as possible – there are a lot of elements of gymnastics and athletics.” 

Players can use any part of their body to deflect the ball – hands, arms, shoulders, head, legs or feet. They just need to do anything they can to stop it dropping in the sea, and pass it to another player, who will do the same. There’s a lot of jumping and falling. “Actually falling is the most important part,” says Žuvela, “You have to lose your fear of landing to play well. When I land on my chest I slide for 20 meters.”

“You need years to know how to play,” he continues. When he started, he was one of the youngest players. One day, a team of four older men was missing a fifth player and they invited him to join them. “I was the only teenager who played with them – today I’m the link between these generations, I have this honor. Now we have a lot of younger players, and we’re mixed, which wasn’t allowed before.” Players need to know what each other is capable of, so they only pass the ball to another team member if they’re sure he, or she, will be able to hit it and keep the relay going.¨

“There’s a lot of improvisation,” says Žuvela. “It’s all about fun, as much fun as possible.”

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