About This Festival
Some have called it the most unusual sporting event in the world. Once a year in the middle of the elegance of Renaissance-era Florence and in front of the imposing marble facade of the Church of Santa Croce and its statue of Dante, rival teams duke it out in a violent, body-to-body match played on a sand-covered playing field as fans wildly cheer on their neighborhood squad.
The Calcio Storico has ancient roots: the Greeks played a similar ball game that was later adapted in the first century B.C. by the Romans, who used in to train warriors preparing for combat. By the 5th century, calcio—today the Italian word for soccer, or football—was played all over Florence, including atop the Arno river when it was frozen the winter of 1490. In 1580 actual rules were written by a Florentine count, Giovanni de Bardi.
In 1930, the sport was revived and an annual tournament established, with the final match scheduled for June 24 each year to coincide with the city's celebration of its patron saint, St. John the Baptist; semifinals take place the weekend prior.
Before the games, long parades of 500 gloriously-costumed drummers, trumpeters, flag throwers, and brawny players in Renaissance garb slowly make their way along narrow cobblestone streets from Piazza Santa Maria Novella to Piazza Santa Croce. Parade banners with the city's emblem—red lilies portrayed on a white background, underlined with “Fiorenza”—line the route
Four districts of Florence—San Giovanni, Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce and Santa Spiritu—organize competing teams of 27 men each and they march in their own lavish district colors and emblems displayed on banners. Priority position is given to the winning district of the previous game. Players strut onto the field with trumpets blaring, the pageantry accompanied by foot soldiers with swords and iron helmets, pantaloons, and striped stockings. A cannon blast signals the start of the match.
Simple Rules, Simply Violent
Although the pre-game festivities are elaborate, the game itself is rather simple: players use hands, heads, and feet to get the ball over four-foot high wooden fences at either end of the field. They hurl themselves and block their opponents by punching, kicking, and wrestling them to the ground, sometimes so violently that it leads to bloodshed. There's sand-throwing, elbowing, and choking in the 50 minutes of combat, with no substitutions and no timeouts.
Local police have had to step in to make the game less thuggish: a few years ago they barred convicted criminals and players who were considered too violent. Referees in plumed hats scramble to enforce the few rules inside the field, but their role is limited, and players pay little heed in the mayhem. One rule seems to be adhered to, however: no kicks to the head.
At the final cannon shot, players are caked in blood, sweat, and sand, their shirts ripped to shreds. The triumphant winning team takes home the prize: a much-coveted Chianina breed cow from which the famous local steak specialty, bistecca alla fiorentina, is derived. That night, a spectacular fireworks show over the Arno River is launched from Piazzale Michelangelo.