By John Catton
FLORENCE, Italy – On the third Sunday in June, Florentines throughout the city come together to celebrate the feast day of the city’s patron saint, St. John the Baptist. The day is punctuated with parades of nobles in period costumes, with Catholic mass services, and it culminates with the final match of Calcio Storico, or “historical soccer.”
Imagine a game every bit as violent as a backyard brawl, but at the same time rich with tradition and revered as part of local and national identities, much like baseball or football in the United States. Oh, and somewhere in the middle of all of that is something that resembles a soccer match.
Many other elements seem borrowed from other sports, as well.
“It’s a mix of rugby, MMA soccer and American football,” said Alessandro Gargani, a former Calcio player and now the social media coordinator for the Santo Spirito team.
Players can use almost any means necessary to get the ball past the opposing players and, thus, score. Kicking, punching and choking are not against the rules, but integral parts of the game.
A match, which begins with a cannon blast, consists of two teams of 27 players each (four goalkeepers, three fullbacks, five halfbacks, and 15 forwards). Head-butting, punching, choking and kicking all are allowed, though sucker punches will likely draw a whistle from one of the many “referees.” Played on a field of sand, the two sides switch after each score, which is worth one point.
“It’s a game as tough as guts,” journalist, author and Florence native Deirdre Pirro said. “It is a very violent game. It has to be seen in order to be believed. It’s very unique in Florence and to Florence.”
Each team represents one of Florence’s original, historical neighborhoods: Santa Maria Novella (Reds), Santa Croce (Blues), Santo Spirito (Whites) and San Giovanni (Greens). All players are volunteers; they make no money from the sport. This year, the victors were the Reds, playing/fighting under the banner of the golden sun.
In total, there are only three Calcio matches played each year. Teams must win the first match match to go to the final played on top of Piazza di Sante Croce on San Giovanni day. There are two semifinal games a few weeks before the two winners of the semifinal matches play one another on the third Sunday in June.
The match is always played in Piazza de Santa Croce. This city square is converted to a stadium for the games, as bleachers soon become part of the landscape that includes the Basilica di Santa Croce, home to the burial vaults of, among others, Donatello, Galileo and Michelangelo.
The Calcio pitch is a 80 meters by 40 meters and has nets on either end, and the object of the game is to place the ball into the opposing team’s net to score a caccia, or goal. The team with the most goals scored during the regulation 50 minutes wins the day.
In a game where getting beaten up is simply de rigueur, how one approaches the game is critical, according to Gargani, who formally played for the Bianchi team.
“In order to play you have to think less,” Gargani said. “Because if you think about what you’re about to go through, you might not end up going through with it. Getting hurt is part of the game.”
However, for Gargani, the result of winning the finals is well worth the physical price.
“Just to be on a team and wear your neighborhood colors is a great honor, the biggest in the Florence,” he said. “The winner is the winner of Florence and the winner of the world.”
Taproot into history
For native Florentines, the sport is more than a violent game, more than an odd game; it is a matter of pride. It is an expression of pride for the neighborhoods in which Florentines live and their very particular histories and traditions.
The game has its roots in ancient Greek tradition, but the game that is seen today dates back to the 16th century when the rules were codified by the Florentine writer, Giovanni Bardi. The sport was widely popular among the nobility, played by popes and clergy.
The contemporary game re-creates a match played in 1530, when the English army of Henry V invaded Florence. The Florentine neighborhoods played matches in Santa Croce square to demonstrate their unity against the invaders, according to Donn Rislo, author of Soccer Stories: Anecdotes, Oddities, Lore and Amazing Facts.
Another King Henry, the French King Henry III, reportedly saw a match in 1574. This Henry described it as “too violent to be a game, but too tame to be a war,” according to Edward Brooke-Hitching, author of Fox Tossing, Octopus Wrestling and Other Forgotten Sports.
Even today, the sport has remained essentially unchanged since it was played in the 16th century. On the day of the final match, the scene in Santa Croce is one that would be very recognizable to a 16th-century Florentine: A parade of flag bearers and soldiers carrying the standards of each of the neighborhoods enter the stadium before the match. Costumed men and women represent the nobility that once vied for power in Florence both on and off the pitch. Trumpets fill the air as the players enter the field. And players wear the same uniforms as their predecessors in the 16th century, even though they are usually in tatters by the end of the match.
A Florence native and the daughter of a former Calcio Storico referee, Daniela Grosso, said she was born “into a family where Calcio Storico was simply a permanent part of her upbringing.”
She said she believes that the game is a peek into the psyche of Florentines.
“Calcio reveals the inner personality of Florentines that goes beyond class,” she said. “I don’t care if you are from a noble family, if you are involved in Calcio Storico, you always have people’s respect. For modern Florentines, it represents a time when Florence was real and in a sense, what we wish Florence still would be today.”