Did you know that soccer, better known throughout the world as football, was born in Florence? But this isn’t just an average football game. This summer I went to the wildest sport that exists today. My friends had told me it would a really violent and bloody game and man were they right! Calcio Storico is the modern day gladiator sport with men battling on a battlefield while playing football. At the game, you will see men knocking each other unconscious and beating one another to a pulp. It’s gruesome, terrifying and an experience I’ll never forget.
Starting in in Florence Italy in the 15th century, the Calcio Storico game has lasted through the centuries and is the closest modern day gladiator event. It takes place in Florence’s city center, Piazza Santa Croce, every year on June 24. Calcio translates to “football” and Storico means “historic” – Historical Football. In fact, this game has a combination of soccer, American football, rugby, boxing and mixed martial arts all in one.
King Henry III of France was quoted to have said that this event is “Too small to be real war and too cruel to be a game.”
This cutthroat game has very few enforced rules and is not for the weak of stomach. Sucker punches and kicks to the head are forbidden but headbutting, punching, tripping, wrestling and choking are fair game. The players become so violent participants are often knocked unconscious then must be rushed out of the arena by a team medical aids standing on the sidelines. Normally there are 20 – 30 aids at each game waiting for the violence to incur and ready to take action when players are badly injured.
Created in the 15th century, wealthy aristocrats and even Popes would play to show sportsmanship and fortitude. Originally the game was named “giuoco del calcio fiorentino” or the “playground of Florentine football” and played between Epiphany and Lent (January – March). Interest in game subsided in the 17th century until Mussolini revived it in 1930 where it was played in the streets with a ball made of clothes or animal skins.
Today the game is played every year on June 24, the feast day of San Giovanni. A few rules have been added to protect the participants but not much has changed about the game since it was created. There are 27 players from the four largest districts of Florence that participate in this yearly event. The district of Santo Spirito (white), Santa Croce (blue), Santa Maria Novella (red) and San Giovanni (green), all playing for gore and glory. And the prize? Chianina calf which is displayed in the arena before each match.
Before the game begins a procession of men and women playing traditional brass and drumming music parades through the streets of Florence making their way to the arena. Then a show of traditional flag throwing from men in traditional uniforms and tights toss flags branded with the red and white Florentine symbol.
The game takes place in the Piazza Santa Croce where the square floor is covered in dirt with tall fences and gates surrounding the perimeter, transforming this beautiful church square into a battlefield. Metal bleachers are erected for the onlookers to get a good view of the game.
On The Field
Just before the game starts the field is full of people: the parade, the flag throwers, the prize calf, the city officials dressed in traditional majoral clothes all joined together on the field and the introductions can begin.
As the players enter the field you see them warming up by throwing punches in the air or practice sparring with fellow players. They are generally very large muscular men with shaved heads and tatted arms. With 27 players on each side of the field, the tension rises players take their positions and the ball is tossed into the air. Once a team has possession of the ball the war begins. Strategy is a very important element to get the ball to the other side of the field. The goal spans the width of the field and the players must throw the ball over a short wall to make a point.
During the game, players can get so out-of-hand that they attack the referee or a medical aid. In fact, in one of the matches, this year – 2017- a procession of armed policemen ran out onto the field with shields because a player had attacked a referee. The player cost the game for his teammates and they were disqualified from the winning circle.
In past years a player was reported to have bitten off the ear of another player which turned many people against the continuation of this event. Critics have gone back and forth on whether this game was too violent, but for the players and the fans, this historical event gives pride and glory to everyone in the arena. Players are proud to represent their district in a gruesome fight which displays strength and courage.
Want to hear what a Calcio Storico player thinks of the games click here to read an interview from Chloe Beresford talking to Giacomo Peggion.
You can buy tickets online or in sports stores for about €25 – 40. Be sure to know where you are sitting. Two sides of the arena are where the fans stand to cheer on their team, the other two sides are for neutral onlookers.
Tip: The seats for neutral onlookers, one side of the arena is covered by shade while the other side gets a full blast of the hot June sun. Be sure to dress accordingly depending on where you sit and sunscreen is always a good idea. Check out this link to get a better idea of the seating arrangement.
Although this game can be difficult to watch it is an entertaining event soaked in a lot of history. As usual, the fest is rich with colors and spirit of the Italian people that leave the rest of the world smiling and cheering for one team or the other. If you can handle the spectacle it’s one that you won’t soon forget.
Check out this video by Vice Sports to get a better understanding of how intense this game really is.
Do you love all things Italy? Check out other articles about Italy to learn more about this beautiful country.