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Rules variations within the generic Pilota Valenciana category are frequent from area to area but the common trait is that the ball is struck with a bare, or almost bare, hand (only minimal protection is applied in some versions of the sport). The general rule involves two teams made from two up to five players each (the numbers depend on the particular version played). Exceptionally, individual matches are also played (mostly in Escala i corda and Raspall) between the most renowned players.
The second characteristic is that it is not played against a wall. Instead, similar to modern tennis, two individuals or teams are placed face to face separated either by a line on the ground or a net in all of modern modalities except for the frontó. A distinctive trait of Valencian pilota is that the spectators are often seated or standing very close to the court which means that they may be hit by the ball and thus become an (unwilling) part of the game.
The origins of Valencian pilota are not known with certainty, but it is commonly supposed to have been derived from the medieval Jeu de paume along with several other European handball sports (for example the Basque laxoa, French Longue paume, Frisian handball and Italian Pallone) similar to the actual Valencian llargues variant.
Jeu de paume is documented at Paris in 1292 since there were 13 ball workshops and many tripots (courtfields); it was first played with the hands, and the scoring system was very similar to the current Valencian one. There were so many resemblances with the Valencian pilota sport that, in the 16th century, the humanist Joan Lluís Vives compared both games in his Dialogues and claimed them to be exactly the same despite some minor differences.
Being played by low-class people and high-class nobles, Valencian pilota was very popular: On June 14, 1391 the Valencia City Council fruitlessly forbade it to be played on the streets, but this caused the expansion of trinquets (courtfields); there were as many as 13 in that city alone in the 16th century. Later on, nobles abandoned the handball game in favour of '"'cleaner" sports and so pilota became the property of the middle and lower classes, which led to the appearance of the first professional players and the rise of gambling and challenge matches.
The break between indoor and outdoor forms caused many variants to diverge from the original Llargues version. Thus Perxa evolved into Galotxa, and which in turn gave rise to Escala i corda, while Raspall was still played in both courtfields. llargues is the only variant that uses the original "ratlles" rule, the others using a net to separate two sides on the playing area (as galotxa, and escala i corda), or with no court division at all (raspall). Another case is the Frontó variety, which was first documented in the late 19th century, influenced by the popularity of the main Basque pelota variant, which involves players throwing the ball against a wall.
Nowadays, Valencian pilota is played in the whole Valencian Community, but every area has its preferred variety. Professional players of Escala i corda and Raspall are hired to play at the trinquets or in streets during the towns' festivals. The popularity of this sport is rising again with the building of new cortifields at schools, weekly broadcasts on Valencian public TV, the management of a professional company (ValNet) and the Handball International Championships with countries where these sports with a common origin are played.
There are two basic versions of the sport depending whether it is played outdoors in a designated street or indoors.
With the basic set of rules for either street or indoor pilota, there are many different variations, some of them are played only locally, but most of them are played in wider areas. The only modalities with professional players are Escala i corda and Raspall.
Another way to categorize variations is whether they are direct or indirect. The direct games are those whose players are opposed face-to-face in different sides of the court, which is sometimes divided by a net; the indirect games are those with a wall where both teams throw the ball from a shared court. The traditional variations of Pilota Valenciana are direct, even though recently some indirect games ("Frontó" and "Frares") have been introduced based on the Basque Pelota.
The only Valencian pilota variety played outside the Valencian community is Llargues. Every year a European championship is held by the International Ball game Confederation with players from Valencia, Belgium, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. There is also a world championship with those teams plus Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Peru.
The Handball International Championships combine local handball variations from all over Europe to create the "international game" using the shared traits from all the sports related or derived from the jeu de paume. Valencian professional players do not need much adaptation, since Llargues is very close to the international rules.
Another case is the international fronton, another invented variety that takes back the indirect style to its basics: one wall where the ball must bounce.
From the Basque Pelota modalities played in the Basque Country the ones called "bote luzea", "mahi jokoa" are extinct but, by all accounts they were extremely similar to what has been preserved in Valencian Pilota as Llargues, but using a bigger and heavier ball.
An example of the compatibility there used to be between Valencian Llargues and Basque a la larga modalities was the existence during the 19th century of a sort of early professional side to the sport, with players from elsewhere earning high amounts of money, such as Aragonese Lagasa and Valencian Amigó, who, for example, toured in Navarre during September 1680.
In October 2006, for the first time, a Navarrese youth team played Llargues against a Valencian one during the "Pilota Day" celebrated in Valencia (in the adult match, the Valencian community team played the Frisian team from the Netherlands). At the moment the only exchanges between both sports are friendly matches of Frontó, which is the main modality for Basques but a mostly irrelevant one for Valencians. In summer, or for special events, exhibition matches are organized, as the "Open Ciutat de València", with particular rules (such as the length of the court), and balls of intermediate size and diameter (70 gr.) between the kinds that both regions are accustomed to.
Every version of the game uses its own kind of ball. Each kind is different in weight, size, the way it bounces and other aspects. They are all handmade by specialized crafters.
Betting is inherent to the sport in its professional version and it is arguably the main factor which has kept the game alive, unlike similar games played elsewhere which ended up fading away. This is because betting allows professional players to exist, which creates rivalries and increases the entertaining dimension of the sport for the audience. Spectators of Valencian pilota can bet on one of the two sides, and the trinquets and the marxador gets a commission from these bets.
The two teams dress either with red or blue shirts. Bets are made for one color (red or blue) winning, for a certain margin of victory points, or for an expected way to score each particular point.
Remarkably high amounts of money may be bet during relevant games involving famous players. The more famous players become, the more betting is involved and so their personal revenue.
Valencian pilota players are called pilotaris or pilotaires. Usually amateur players are only proficient in one variant, but professional players tend to be hired for social events and exhibitions in other variants. There are now only two variants with professional players: Escala i corda and Raspall.
For a list of relevant historical or active players, see Valencian pilotaris. Also, see below for the existing professional leagues and competitions.
Escala i Corda
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