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Calcio Storico: "Too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game"

Calcio Storico Florence, Italy. Too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game

Now this is a bit of an odd one.

To the sane at least, those who love violence will eat this blog up. And as it turns out, violence is a hot commodity, that’s why they televise it.

One of the more violent major sports, American football, averages around 15 million viewers per your typical regular season game, with that number consistently exceeding 100 million for the Super Bowl, at least over the last 10 years. However, it turns out a game that has resulted in 99% of its former players developing CTE isn’t vicious enough for some people (I’m not even exaggerating, that stat is from the Journal of the American Medical Association, I do my research). So when people are feeling really good about themselves on a Saturday night, they tune into the art that is the UFC.  

Aside: If items like this ‘painting’ below are considered art, $137.5 million art to be exact, then mixed martial arts is an art, those cheeky bastards even snuck it into the name. 

I’ve seen fighters paint an octagon with blood better than this waste of a canvas. My apologies for the unnecessary side rant, just something we talked about on the podcast a while back that still has me worked up. I mean, this just looks terrible.


Jackson Pollock - No. 5

Jackson Pollock, No. 5


But what if I told you there’s a sport even more malicious than a UFC fight ending with a good ole James Irvin flying knee knockout. Who’s James Irvin? He’s only the guy who landed the “greatest flying knee” ever, according to Joe Rogan. Google it. ‘It’ being, “who has a wicked flying knee mixed martial arts.”

Rather, I will be getting into what has been described as a blend of football, boxing and rugby. It’s been coined the ‘Most Dangerous Game of Football’, and it only takes place in Florence, Tuscany. The six century old sport, Calcio Fiorentino, commonly known as Calcio Storico.   

The earliest known match of Calcio Storico took place in the 15th century, with King Henry III of France attending a game in his honour during a visit to Italy. His impression on the sport was recorded as this;

“Too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game”.

When you attempt to describe the level of violence in Calcio Storico to other people in an effort to flex some cool stuff you learned in a really great article you read the other day, that quote is probably all you need. 

Popularity of the sport wore off up until 1930, when it was then recognized as a sport in the Kingdom of Italy under Benito Mussolini. If that ‘too small for a war but too cruel for a game’ quote doesn’t do it, hopefully the fact that Mussolini was the one to resurrect the sport paints a better picture of how violent this game is.

 

Calcio Storico choke
This is allowed
Double fist punch calcio storico

This double fist punch is also allowed

 

The rules are simple: 27 players on each team play head to head on a sandy pitch with the objective of throwing the ball over the designated spot on the opponent’s side of the field. This ‘designated spot’ isn’t a true net or end zone, the pitch is completely fenced off with what looks like metal chain link, so basically just throw the ball against the opponents fence. Also, a match is 50 minutes in length with zero substitutions, so only the fittest people of Florence are actually physically able to participate.

In regard to contact, players tackle the ball carrier and once a player is knocked to the ground, they can’t get back up until the next point is scored. Not only is there full contact with absolutely zero equipment, but fighting is an integral part of the sport. In fact, fighting serves a huge role from a strategy standpoint, believe it or not, to score.

The easiest way to explain this is to keep in mind blocking schemes seen in American Football. The offensive linemen will set up their blocks to open up holes in the defence to create running lanes for the ball carrier to run through and get downfield. Similarly, in Calcio Storico, players will get in fist fights in order to knock other players to the ground, thus making them ineligible to get back up until a point is scored. With players getting pinned down, this opens up space on a pitch filled with 54 gladiator sized men. Providing an opportunity for the offensive team to run downfield, while of course being allowed to pass the ball to other teammates, in their valiant quest to throw a ball against a fence.

 

Calcio Storico player scoring points

A Calcio Storico player attempting to get downfield


In footage I’ve seen, I have watched players trade vicious bare knuckle punches, grapple opponents in python-like chokeholds, land nasty elbows to the face, throw countless body slams and everything in between. At first, this is the draw to the niche sport of Calcio Storico, the savagery of it. But there’s more to it than what meets the eye.

Aside from the gruesomeness of Calcio Storico, what truly separates it from any other sport is its cultural impact, which doesn’t span much further than the region of Tuscany. The game is only popular in Florence, largely in part to the fact that only people who are born in Florence are eligible to play in matches and represent one of the four districts in the city. Which is the other thing that separates it from any other sport, its exclusiveness. Former players who move outside of the city will have their sons born at hospitals in one of these four districts just so that their son can be eligible to play in Calcio Storico when they grow up.

As mentioned, there are four teams that separate Florence; the Blues (of Santa Croce), the Whites (of Santo Spirito), the Reds (of Santa Maria Novella) and the Greens (of San Giovanni). Every June these four teams play in two semi-final matches early on in the month, with the winners playing in the finals a couple weeks later, on June 24th. The final always takes place on the 24th because it’s the feast day of Florence's patron saint, John the Baptist, so the whole day is a celebration in Florence, with the game being just a part of the festivities. 

 

Fans attending a calcio storico match

Fans of the Reds cheering in the Piazza Santa Croce

 

The event also proves my point that us Italians will always find a way to use religion as an excuse to create a holiday. Even an event that’s centred around grown men beating on each other because the grown men on the other team are wearing different coloured shorts, representing that those grown men are from a different area of the city, which ends with all of them feasting together afterwards in honour of the guy who baptized Jesus. God must be proud of how we’ve interpreted the Bible.

But it’s this kind of passion that makes the sport so interesting. On June 24th, the town shuts down with people parading the streets alongside marching bands, shouting chants as they make their way to the centre of Florence to meet at the Piazza Santa Croce. Witnessing the event and taking part in its festivities is an experience in itself for the people of Florence, but to actually step foot on the pitch is a feeling that only a certain few can understand. Players have described the feeling of representing one of the four districts as the most fearful yet fulfilling moments of their lives.

Being a Calcio Storico player and walking into the Piazza as one of the 54 men that step foot on the sand is an extremely high honour. Being a player means you’re part of Florence’s rich history, and, as many players have said, Calcio Storico is Florence. That is what these guys play for — there are no pay incentives whatsoever. These guys go out there, suffer serious injuries such as broken ribs and spend the rest of their summer on a limp, strictly for their pride and honour toward the city of Florence. The team that is lucky enough to win the final simply earns bragging rights for their district. Oh and also a cow, but don’t worry they don’t eat it. Anymore. That being said, they do celebrate with a feast afterwards so the cow will probably eventually die, at some point. Grow up.

The nature of Calcio Storico may seem odd, both on and off the pitch, but this variant of football is not far off from how football is treated here in the West. The similarities are uncanny. For instance, come June in Florence they sing and play music in large marching bands just before the match, leading right up until kick-off. 

Here, in the Fall, we wait all day for Sunday night to watch Carrie Underwood perform the Sunday Night Football song, getting us juiced up  to watch our unnecessarily ripped alphas bang it out for an evening. Reading back that could also be the title of my co-host (you’re going to want to click this next link) John's favourite porno.

Similarly, the Florentines wait all year for June 24th to celebrate the great feast day of their patron saint John the Baptist, through the sport of Calcio Storico.

While the Americans wait all year for the Super Bowl, where they too feast, just on a disgusting amount of literally to die for grease-filled food, in honour of America’s saint, Tom Brady. The guy has played in 18% of all Super Bowls, it’s safe to call it his day.

Also, the people of Florence parade the streets in celebration of the event, just as Americans who support the winning team of their championship take to the streets in an organized parade for a drunken celebration.  

So if they’re so similar then what is so special about Calcio Storico? Why does it deserve it’s own blog? Why don’t I write a 2000 word article about how awesome the NFL is instead? 

Remember that part when I brushed over the fact that Calcio Storico players don’t get paid?

That’s why, because let's face it, I could write about the deep history of Florence, how it relates significantly to Calcio Storico, thus making it such a crucial sport of Italy’s culture. But you don’t care about that, so how would it help me drive home the level of passion within Calcio Storico, which is what makes it so unique.

Just let it sink in that Calcio Storico players train all year in anticipation for one game, where they battle against 27 warriors that aren’t afraid to break limbs and throw hands, strictly for the pride of their city and nothing more, not even money. This is Calcio Storico, the sport was built on pride and it will always stay true to that because there is no materialistic motives in the way. Sure, NFL players and to a more gruesome extent, UFC fighters, have inspiring stories and a passion for the game. But I guarantee if there were absolutely zero financial incentives, not a single one would put their bodies through that trauma. But Calcio Storico players have and will continue to do so. Not only that, but they are honoured to do so for the sake of their district.

You never hear of a Calcio Storico player demanding a trade, holding out for more money or leaving their squad to join another team because it would make for a cool superteam. 

Sure, I get it. Major league sports players need that money to support themselves and their families, it’s a way to make a living over here. I understand, I am not trying to hate on the fact that players like Le’Veon Bell holding out to demand more money or pull a Kevin Durant and ruin the integrity of a whole sport. That is how it is over here and that is fine — we turned these games into commodities and people can live off of it, which is amazing. 

But this is what separates these other leagues from Calcio Storico. No one questions if a player is truy passionate or playing for the right reasons, because there is only one reason. Also, no one in their right mind would participate for free unless they were that overly passionate about Florence.

The fact that millions of people around North America are fans of the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB is great and all, but the exclusivity of Calcio Storico is almost even better. Which may seem like a rough thing to say since everything is about inclusivity and whatnot. But let me close this out with one final remark.

Here in Canada when the Toronto Raptors won the NBA Finals in 2019, I went to the Championship parade which broke records for attendance, with over a million people storming the streets. It will be remembered as a great day in Canadian history with hundreds of thousands of people coming together through sport.

Except for the fact that this is bullshit. Trust me I was there, it sucked.

 

Toronto Raptors Championship Parade Millions of 'fans' attending the Raptors championship parade


Rather, what you had was around a million people who didn’t give a fuck about basketball, let alone the Toronto Raptors. There was no true passion, it was just people running over each other, yelling at one another to back off, as they were annoyingly squeezing by people to get as close as they could to the stage, oh and also there was a shooting. Talk about a unified bunch of people.

I would love to be a part of what Florence has in Calcio Storico. I would rather be a part of a small city that is passionate about one thing nobody else in the world even knows about, than to be a part of a ridiculously large fan base spreading across millions of people.

There’s something about a hometown team that consists of people who are constantly willing to put themselves on the line for the city, it just feels right. Probably because their loyalty to that very same hometown is exactly what got them in the sport to begin with.

That loyalty to a certain region, and the excruciating violence, is really what defines Calcio Storico, if you were to boil it down to a sentence. Actually, let me rephrase that:

Calcio Storico is too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game.

 

Written by: Jacob Racco

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