FLORENCE, Italy— The Italian city of Florence is steeped in history, from its art to its architecture, and even its sports.
Since the 16th century, the city in the Tuscan region of Italy plays one of the most unusual sports in the world that was once described by Henry III of France in 1547 as “too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game.” This sport is none other than Calcio Storico, or Calcio Fiorentino, a primitive form a soccer that is played exclusively in the city of Florence that combines the sports of soccer, rugby, and mixed martial arts.
The objective of the game is simple. Two teams of 27 players face off with one ball and two goals that are about a foot and half tall and as wide as the stadium. The game lasts for 50 minutes and whoever has the most points at the end, wins. You score one point for every goal and give the other team half of a point if a shot misses the goal. There is only one rule when it comes to playing—don’t kill your opponent.
What makes Calcio Storico unique is its sheer brutality. The goal of the game is to attack the other team in an effort to advance the ball towards the goal. This means kicking, punching, tackling, and pinning your opponents to ground. Players use whatever means necessary to ensure their team wins—except for sucker punches, kicks to the head, and ganging up on players, which is not allowed in the modern game.
This sport is unique to Florence in that it is only played in the city, but it is also deeply entrenched in the city’s culture. There are only four teams that play Calcio Storico and they consist of the four districts, or Quartiere, of the city—the Azzurri of Santa Croce, the Rossi of Santa Maria Novella, the Bianchi of Santa Spirito, and the Verdi of San Giovanni. The players for each team are simply just residents of each district and they receive no compensation for participating, just city-wide bragging rights if they win.
Calcio Storico takes place in a makeshift stadium on the Piazza Santa Croce in the center of Florence during the month of June. Two teams face off against each other in the first round, and then the winners advance to the final on June 24, the same day as the feast of Saint John, the patron saint of Florence.
The city takes immense pride in this sport and people can be seen wearing the colors of their home district proudly during the build-up to the game. Both team’s wear the traditional Renaissance-era dress during the game and the match is preceded by a massive Renaissance parade. It’s a sporting spectacle like no other, which is why I was extremely lucky to witness the 2018 Calcio Storico final this year.
For the 2018 final, the Rossi of Santa Maria Novella faced off against the Verdi of San Giovanni. I sat in the Verdi section, originally donning a green Al Horford Celtics jersey before swapping out for a San Giovanni t-shirt. The long pregame ceremony featured a Renaissance parade with flags, costumes, drums, and horses, as well as some pyrotechnics from the Rossi and Verdi fans.
The game got off to an electric start, with team’s biggest players immediately pouncing on each other and brawling. There were roughly five minutes of fighting before San Giovanni even began to advance the ball down the field. In the end, though, Santa Maria Novella got off to a hot start and took an early 5-2 lead, before a few costly misses by San Giovanni gave the Rossi a large lead. In the end, Santa Maria Novella won 11-4.
The atmosphere at this event was like no other sporting event I’ve ever gone to. Its excitement and brutality is a spectacle in its own right.