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The sun beats down on a sandy pit inside a packed stadium. Thousands of spectators have made the pilgrimage to Italy to see the bare-fisted brawl between 54 fighters. Some of the men are incredibly fit, others stand out for their sheer mass, but all have one thing on the mind – inflicting pain on their opponents.
No, this is not the Coliseum, but these men are modern day gladiators. The ‘sport’ is calcio fiorentino, also known as Calcio Storico, which roughly translates to ‘historic football’. In reality, the sport has very little to do with what we think of as football in the current era.
Located in the piazza of Santa Croce, the annual tournament consists of four teams from the four different quarters of the city, each consisting of 27 players. The four teams are split into two matches by drawing coloured balls that represent each quarter. Santa Croce are blue, Santa Maria Novella are red, Santo Spirito are white and San Giovanni are green. This simplistic format adds to the earthy and straightforward nature of a sport which never sugar-coats what it’s all about.
The aim of the 50-minute game is to get the ball into the goal at the opposite end of the pitch with the team that scores the most winning the game, but that is where similarities with modern football end. Far from using their feet to control the ball as is usually the case in regular football, the rules state that contestants can get the ball to the opposition’s goal using hands and feet “by any means necessary”. This doesn’t just mean grabbing the ball and running but in fact punching, elbowing and wrestling your opponents to the ground.
Many spectators that defend the sport, which was stopped for 200 years and only revived in the 1930s, argue that the media reports of the violence overshadow the essence of the sport. Yet you need only speak to the competitors involved to quickly clarify that the bloody battle is indeed all about fear.
“The most important component of the calcio storico is the fear” claimed 38-year-old Alessio Giorgerini, a participant representing the Blues. “Those who say they don’t feel fear are telling lies.
“Fear is the engine that drives us. When you walk into the arena and the cage is closed, the fear becomes a pleasurable sensation. All my unnecessary senses are suppressed, and the necessary ones are intensified with a sole aim; to survive 50 minutes against 27 men that want to kill me on the arena.”
The fear is justified, too; many of the contestants are trained in various martial arts and the scenes in the bloodied sandpit are not something most are accustomed to seeing in the 21st century.
Thankfully, there are some rules in place. Kicks to the head are strictly forbidden and crucially players are not allowed to gang up on one individual. If two or more players turn on a single opponent at the same time the referee has the ability to produce a red card.
Heats are held in the middle of June over two days with the final always being held on June 24th, a feast day for the city’s patron saint St. John the Baptist. The day’s events are somewhat contrasted the spectacle on the field, with plenty of men, women and children taking to the streets in a festival atmosphere. A parade that begins an hour before the match sees the majority of the town involved in the festivities with a dedicated fireworks show closing proceedings after the conclusion of the tournament.
Although the sport has deep roots within Florence not all of the locals are quite so upbeat about the re-emergence of calcio storico. Given the intense violence that takes place within the arena, it is unsurprising that the families of some players have indicated their dismay at the game’s continued popularity. Outsiders’ interpretations of the sport even affect some of the on-field contestants.
“My mother has never come to the square, nor my wife, daughter or father” said Simone Mafara, a member of Santa Croce.
“If I knew that my mother was suffering in the stands, watching her son getting wounded, and wounding other opponents, it would kill me.”
Reporting on the 2013 event, BBC’s Sarah Dunant clearly felt there were stark similarities between calcio storico and the gladiator battles of the Coliseum.
“Throughout history sport has proved a creative alternative to our recurring tendency to kill each other” Dunant writes.
“When [the final] took place six days later, the winners were – yes! – the blues from Santa Croce. It was clearly a cathartic encounter – a fifth of the players were sent off for violent behaviour – and the celebrations that followed were, well, full-blooded. I know this because I was awake most of the night listening to them. That’s another thing that hasn’t changed in Florence. Those pavement stones echo as much in the present as they did in the past.”
Should these men be admired for their athleticism and bravery? Going into an arena unarmed in front of thousands of locals and tourists alike to battle hordes of competitors for nearly an hour is something most of us would never dream of. Yet this in itself is also a criticism; many see the sport as violence for the sake of violence, an archaic instinct that should have been buried shortly after its sixteenth century conception.
Whatever you make of calcio storico, the sport is undeniably exhilarating – be that for the right or wrong reasons. Its major tourist appeal will likely see in continue for many years, and it certainly fits the mould of Italy’s rich history.