Two shots at the balon

Traversing the Langa del Sole without witnessing a game of balon is like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. Balon, also known as pallapugno or pallone elsatico, is the ‘national’ sport of these hills. And like all great sports, identity is inextricably intertwined with the competitions, the players, the traditions and superstitions, the bets, the shouts and the emotions that abound every match.

Similar to tennis, but without the net, two teams of four play Balon in town squares in a version of the game called «lizza alla pantalera». The goal of the game is simple: to hit the rubber ball as hard as possible, to send it as far downfield on the opponent’s side, or even off the field, to win points. The only equipment is the rubber ball and players hit it with a piece of shaped leather that is bandaged around their wrist, palm, thumb and forefinger with a piece of cloth. Watch them go head to head, like gladiators in an arena, their uniforms bearing their town’s colours.

Watching a game of Balon is like no other sporting event you’ve been to before. The matches are exclusively played in town squares, whether they be rectangular, trapezoidal or downright irregular in shape. In fact, this is essential to the game itself. Uneven terrain, pebbly grounds, potholes, sloping roofs and angular walls all add to the uncertainty of the ball’s trajectory, which inevitably ends up sailing high over the protective nets and landing in the branches of some tree. The beauty of Balon is this lack of uniformity. What becomes important is the context of where it is being played, with the home team having the obvious advantage. Often the teams are Armate Brancoleone, a hodgepodge squad of mismatched people that challenge each other with grit and cunning

It is hard not to get swept up in the atmosphere, the rural charm of such a sport. The referee with a cigarette dangling between is himself lips an older, retired player, the farmer who stands like a brick with stone arms and a generous waistline, the young players, still green, but impressive nonetheless with their power shots and stunning saves and the crowd of families and friends egging each other on, sparing no criticism or shouts of encouragement after every shot.

And after every game the spirit of sportsmanship is celebrated. Hands shake, brows are wiped free of sweat and the taverns fill up with both the winners and the losers, battle songs and glasses of wine easing both sets of minds. The celebratory victors revel in the glory while the losers honour their debts, paying out the under-the-table bets and wagers that accompany every math of Balon.

La Pantalera

In the villages of Langa del Sole, the game of Balon played is specifically the Pantalera version. Nowadays there are professional leagues and standardized courts, but this version, Pantalera, is the original urban version; played on the streets and piazzas of town. The other main difference, and why this version is called Pantalera, which means roof in Piedmont dialect, is that to begin each set, the starting player must bounce the ball off a piece of slanted wood that is attached to a wall like a roof, causing the ball to fly in an unpredictable trajectory.