Punching, head-butting, elbowing and choking: the brutal sport of Calcio Storico

The centuries-old Italian game that only the toughest of men play.

May 11, 2015

There cannot be many things in sport as unusual as the sight of two grown men with cagefighter physiques punching each other in the head while a referee in traditional 16th century clothing attempts to break them up using the long white feather attached to his hat.

It does not seem strange to the other 52 players on the pitch, however, or the crowds gathered to watch. And the feather trick does seem to work, dispelling the red mist and reminding the men that there is a game to be played – they get up, run back to their teammates, and neither is booked nor punished.

An unusual sight this may be, but then this is no ordinary sport. In fact, Calcio Storico (translated from the Italian to mean ‘historic kick game’) is unique to Florence, Italy – sometimes referred to as Calcio Fiorentino (‘Florentine kick game’) – and only played during the month of June. In some ways, it is similar to football, with the aim to score goals, but the fact that players can pick up the ball and run with it makes it similar to rugby, while the ‘anything goes’ tactics applied when facing the opposition are more in line with wrestling or mixed martial arts. Calcio Storico It is a brutal, bloody game, and has had its share of controversy through the years thanks to its violent nature, even being cancelled or postponed when things got too out of hand. Speaking to The Florentine magazine, former calciante – the term used to describe one of the players – Simone Calonaci reveals some of the risks. “It’s not uncommon during games for players to get poked in the eyes, tear ligaments, sprain an ankle or get a shoulder bone knocked out of its socket,” he says. “The aim of most players is to pin their opponents down to the ground and keep them there for the whole match, or hurt them so much that they have to leave the field.”

There are 54 players in each game – 27 per team – with a goal scored by throwing the ball over a designated spot on the 4ft-high wall that runs the length of the pitch either end. Four teams take part, representing the four main areas of Florence: Santa Croce (‘Azzurri’ or Blues); Santa Maria Novella (‘Rossi’ or Reds); Santo Spirito (‘Bianchi’ or Whites); and San Giovanni (‘Verdi’ or Greens). Two semi-finals take place initially, with the winner of each game progressing to the final, which always takes place on St John’s Day (June 24).

The origins of the game can be traced back to the 16th century, with its rules first published in 1580 and written by a Florentine count. Clearly this means that some of the city’s aristocracy were taking an interest in the sport, but it was not merely a case of its wealthy looking on as its lower classes fought each other – they were active players themselves, and there is evidence to suggest that three former Popes were regulars on the pitch in their younger days. Calcio Storico While ball games of this kind have existed for centuries, dating back to the Greeks and Romans, it is unclear exactly how Calcio Storico developed. Historians know that football had been popular in Florence since the 5th century AD, with games played on the ice whenever the river froze over, and it is thought that this new version emerged in the 16th century when the city was occupied by the French, as tired and starving Florentines created a more physical game to both distract them from the situation and as a show of strength.

Head-butting, choking, punching and elbowing are all allowed – in fact, only sucker punching, a kick to the head or a kick from behind will see a player sent off.

The first game took place in 1530, later to be adopted by the city’s aristocrats and played mainly at carnival time. It became a tradition that was hard to keep up, however, eventually disappearing into obscurity. But in 1930, when the city wanted to mark the 400th anniversary of the Siege of Florence, it was revived, and a tournament organised between its four quarters.

Despite only playing in a maximum of two matches per year, to take part still requires a lot of preparation. “We train as any soccer team would, with various kinds of exercises, but we also train in wrestling,” says Calonaci. “In January, players start training twice a week for the Calcio Storico. Each session ends with a mock match. If you’re not good enough to play, there’s a chance you will burden your team with one less player during the match, so you have to be strong.” Calcio Storico It is a certainly a game to be prepared for, with head-butting, choking, punching and elbowing all allowed – in fact, only sucker punching, a kick to the head or a kick from behind will see a player sent off. Any fighting between players must take place one-on-one, and if a third person is involved the game will be halted or even cancelled. The setting is equally as tough, played on a thick layer of sand spread out across the Piazza Santa Croce, doubly long as it is wide, with a line across the centre dividing it into two equal squares.

Each game is played for 50 minutes, with no breaks and no substitutions – if a player is injured, which is a likely scenario, then the team is simply a man down. In addition to the referee, there are six linesmen and a field master, while the prize for the tournament’s winning team is a whole Chianina calf – which in harder times would have fed their district, but today is a symbolic prize, although the steaks may come in handy for healing black eyes.

Due to the nature of the sport, it is always going to spark debate – whether that concerns the sheer spectacle of it, with the mix of period costumes and hard-hitting physical violence, or deciding if there really is a need to celebrate history and tradition in such a bloody and demanding way. It appears to be an event that is very important to Florence, whichever way it is looked at, and for that reason is sure to continue. There is a way to settle any debate, however, and that is at the Piazza Santa Croce in June. Details: visit calciostoricofiorentino.it