Ah, Italy. A country of romance, wine, food, art, history, and culture! Such a refined, sophisticated place to live. Why on earth would such a place have a need for such silly, brutish things as competitive sports, right?
Well, turns out that not only do they do all those previously-mentioned things better than we do in North America, but turns out they also do violence in a bigger and crazier way than anything we’ve managed to dream up to date. And this, friends, is the magic of calcio storico.
Calcio storico (“historic football”) got its start in the 16th century as a sport for rich aristocrats of Florence to play every night between Epiphany and Lent, though there are a number of other versions from a few years earlier as well, including on the frozen Arno River and in Vatican City as well, where even popes participated in the matches. At any rate, after waning in popularity in the 18th century, Mussolini’s government revived the sport in 1930, and it’s been extremely popular ever since.
The city of Florence is divided into four main quarters, each of which has a church that is the cornerstone of the neighbourhood. As a result, the four teams of calcio storico are divided up based on the quarter that participants live in. As follows, here is how it is broken down:
- Santa Croce / Azzurri (Blues)
- Santa Maria Novella / Rossi (Reds)
- Santo Spirito / Bianchi (Whites)
- San Giovanni / Verdi (Greens)
The modern version of calcio storico is held each year in the third week of June in its original birthplace in Florence, the Piazza Santa Croce, at the centre of the city. Three matches are held in all – the winners of the first two matches will face each other in the final, for the grand prize of… a veal calf. Yup. If you lose, you get shit all. You are willing to go into a ring and be beaten almost to death, all for free.
At any rate, the rules for the game are surprisingly complex for a game that is savagery at its highest form.
- Two teams of 27 men each will face off in a stadium about 80 m by 40 m (262 by 131 ft) with sand on the bottom.
- Each end of the stadium is lined with a goal net (partitioned off into smaller sections).
- Matches last 50 minutes in length.
- The start of the match sees a cannon fired, and the ball thrown up into the middle. Players are lined up at the centre white line that divides the playing field as they go to fight for the ball.
- After this, the match will not stop for any reason. Including injuries.
- Teams are looking to score caccia (goals) by throwing the ball into the opposing team’s net, each worth one point. However, any ball that misses, or rebounds off when thrown results in the defending team receiving a half-caccia. Precise shooting is important in this game!
- To prevent scoring, players are free to do just about anything except the following: kicks to the head, sucker punches, ganging up on an opponent. Everything else is fine.
- Yes. Everything. Headbutting, elbowing, choking, punching, sitting on an opponent, it’s all good. Nobody’s ever died, but one official did lament that “we have had a spleen removed” in this New York Times article.
- Referees and medics are on-field to mitigate violence and cheating, which is a rather generous turn-of-phrase.
- If a player is injured or sent off for misconduct by a referee, there are no substitutions.
- Positions for each are as follows:
- 4 goalkeepers
- 3 fullbacks (primary ball-carriers)
- 5 halfbacks (akin to run blockers)
- 15 forwards (these guys literally just stand at the line of scrimmage and beat the shit out of each other in the hopes of opening up a lane.)
This sport is just beyond absurd. Like I just crack up whenever I watch it, it’s that insane to witness.
Below is the 2014 semifinal between Santa Croce (blue) and Santo Spirito (white). Even if you don’t watch the entire 50-minute video, there’s a few good highlights that can tide you over!
- The opening cannon. These guys waste no time in lining up to get the shit beat out of them.
- 25:00 – First goal is scored halfway through (for Santo Spirito).
- 35:30 – BODYSLAM.
- 36:50 – Really fat guy lookin’ to tussle.
- 42:30 – Old man has the ball. This will probably not end well for him.
- 43:30 – Second goal scored – score now tied at 1 apiece.
- 49:45 – Santo Spirito scores the winner!
Enjoy it. It’s an experience. And man, am I glad nobody’s forcing me to play this game.
All in all, as violent and savage as the sport is, I gotta say – when it’s such a unique part of a region’s culture, you have to admit that it does give the whole thing a special amount of charm to it all. So if any of you are travelling to Italy this June, I highly recommend getting a ticket. I’m sure it’s even better live than it is on your screen!