Calcio Fiorentino is definitely the sort of game you would have been tempted to forget your gym shorts for while you were in high school. This is a man’s game, make no mistake, played by the manliest of men in Italy. Like a primitive forefather of football and rugby, combined with no-holds-barred martial arts, Calcio Fiorentino was a bruiser from the day it was born in the 16th Century. Astonishingly it continues to be played to this day. One word sums it up: brutal.
The name of this most macho of sports derives from its place of birth, Florence (Fiorentino) and the Italian verb to kick, “calcio”. Ironically, kicking – along with sucker punching – is one of the few forms of violence that is restricted, with boots to the head a no go. On the other hand, punches and elbows to the face, head-butting, throttling – you name it – are all legally part of the game in Calcio Fiorrentino. Still, there are at least a couple of rules to control the chaos.
The object of the game is to score more points than the opposing team by netting the ball into a goal running the width of the playing field, at either end of a 100m by 50m sand pit. Other than that, it’s pretty much a free for all played flat out over 50 minutes with no time outs or substitutions. The game is played in teams of twenty-seven, ensuring there are enough bodies for a good old-fashioned dust up. It seems as if the eight officials are all there is to prevent a mass riot. Even the fans want to get stuck in.
The official rules of Calcio Fiorentino were first published in 1580 by a Florentine count called Giovanni de’ Bardi. It was then that stipulations were laid down like players being able to use both hands and feet to make contact with the ball – and each other – and the ways in which goals could be scored. At first only wealthy aristocrats played this gladiatorial game, between Epiphany and Lent, with certain Popes also known to have a go in the Vatican. Not so now.
It seems the only credentials needed these days are nerves of steel. If you happen to be one of the more skillful players responsible for carrying the ball or tactical kicking and goal scoring, it’s all about keeping your head while all about you are losing theirs. Drawn from boxing, wrestling and mixed martial arts backgrounds, the other guys are professional brawlers who concentrate on just that – brawling with one another – and the skill boys best steer clear.
Although the game was not played for around two centuries, it reared its hardnosed head in the 20th Century when organised sports were revived in fascist Italy. Today just three matches are played annually amidst much pomp and ceremony in Florence’s Piazza Santa Croce each June. That’s surely enough, as inevitably blood is spilled.