The girls, wearing head scarves and no shoes, were not kicking an ordinary soccer ball -- they were chasing after a flaming, dried-out coconut "ball" under the darkened evening sky.
The students of the As-Sunniyah pesantren in Sokaraja Lor village, Central Java, were indeed enjoying the lively atmosphere of this particular activity.
As many as 200 male and female pesantren students (santri), as well as local residents, gathered around the school compound and mosque yard to watch their rare and bold match.
"Come on, come on kick it ... Goal!," exclaimed supporters as the ball, still burning, was kicked and rolled between the goal posts.
This was As-Sunniyah's student fireball soccer competition which involved male and female members of the Pencak Silat Asma (traditional martial arts club) in a bid to liven up the school's Ramadan evenings.
The girls showed no hesitation or fear whatsoever during the match. They chased after the burning ball just as they would a normal leather soccer ball.
"Yes, it's a terrible thing to imagine before you've tried it. But after learning the techniques and saying some prayers, I wasn't afraid anymore and I got used to it," said 17-year-old Novi Utami.
The previous evening, her instructor had briefed all players, Novi said.
"Among other things, we were told that fire was God's creation. All creations and beings obey Allah as their creator. So before playing, we pray that the fire will not harm us," Novi told The Jakarta Post.
And the special prayers made her bare feet feel no heat from the scorching ball, she said.
Hasyim Murtadho, 60, a patron of As-Suniyah, said certain prayers and shook hands with all eleven players on each team before the game began.
Hasyim said fireball soccer in his pesantren was a tradition on nights of Ramadan, especially to welcome Nuzulul Qur'an on the 17th day of the holy month.
"It's an expression of gratitude to God in anticipation of the descent of the Koran," Hasyim told the Post.
Nuzulul Qur'an was the night of God's miracle and glory when the Islamic holy scripture, the Koran, was given to mankind, he said, adding that fireball soccer was a means to demonstrate to santri one of the marvelous powers of Koranic verses, by which the heat of fire could be subdued.
Muji Setiono, 30, an instructor at the school's Asma club who teaches fireball soccer skills to students, said he and his fellow trainers had prepared several dried coconuts for their games.
"About five dried coconuts were immersed in kerosene for a whole night," Muji said.
That way, he said, the fibrous skin of the coconuts could absorb more kerosene and keep the "ball" flaming for an entire match. Those "balls" that ran out of spark would be replaced with a new flaming one.
The players, aged between 17 and 19 years, were divided into two, same-sex teams before forming a circle to pray together.
The squads then prepared their teams for play. As soon as the referee blew his whistle, the center-forward kicked the ball and cheers filled the night air.
The fireball soccer matches were held for two 10-minute halves.
The game created a very vibrant atmosphere -- spectators were amazed to see barefooted female students chase after (and kick) a burning object.
"We teach players to fear nothing but Allah. This is the main source of their strength," Muji said.
Written by Agus Maryono
Sourced from http://old.thejakartapost.com/detailfeatures.asp?fileid=20080919.T01&irec=0