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Easy Going

Travel stories + tips from seasoned explorers

The Most Brutal Sport on Earth

November 9, 2016

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On June 24, Florence celebrates the feast day for its patron saint, St. John the Baptist, considered the “symbol of moral rectitude and political correctness.” Medieval Florence aspired to build its economic fortune and good government of the Republic based (at least in part) upon these values. All well and good – parades, parties, fireworks, a special Mass. Most stores are closed. Just another Italian holiday, you say.

But part of this celebration may surprise you. Deemed the most brutal sport on earth, Calcio Storico or “historical soccer” is a combination of soccer, street fighting, and rugby found only in Florence. Not only is this sport played for fun, it is a competition that has occurred in Florence on Saint’s Feast day since the 16th century. The home of “giuoco del calcio fiorentino” has always been Piazza Santa Croce, located directly in front of the Santa Croce Church. Although the rules were originally published in 1580, they’ve changed over time. What has remained unchanged are the teams — Santa Croce (blue), Santo Spirito (white), Santa Maria Novella (red), and San Giovanni (green) – named for the four quarters of the city and their famous churches.

In the 16th century, many from the upper classes played Calcio every night during Epiphany and Lent. Calcio Storico remained popular for about 100 years, until it died out in the 17th century. But, in the 1930s, Mussolini restored the game to become one of Florence’s most coveted attractions. Similar to Harpastum (a form of ball game played under the Roman Empire), Calcio Storico is played with hands and feet, normally in teams of 27. Punching, kicking, wrestling, tackling and hacking are allowed – but kicks to the head, elbowing, choking and head-butting aren’t. Points are scored when the ball is thrown over a 4-foot fence at either end of the field. The game is won by the team that scores the most goals, or cacce, after 50 minutes. Each caccia is celebrated with cannon fire, adding to the raucous nature of the event. Small, unofficial games are played during the year, but the season ends by drawing two colored balls, to decide who will compete in semi-finals. The game often results in long lasting injuries, with at least a quarter of the players typically unable to finish the game (and there are no substitutions allowed). The winning team of the finals is treated to dinner out, as well as a calf of the prized Chianina breed (of Bistecca alla Fiorentina fame). No cash prizes.

Before the match, each of the four districts participates in a parade, in which you’ll see the players going by to the finals. The parade starts around 4pm, with the final match occurring around 5. This past June 24th, whites and blues fought for the title in Santa Croce. In the end, whites beat blues by just .5, at 6.5 to 6. After the final match, many head to Piazzale Michelangelo to see the spectacular fireworks that end the celebration of St’s Feast Day.

Tickets (available at Boxol ) generally range from 22 to 53 euro, with the best central seats located in Tribune A. Ticket sales start only once the semi-final dates have been decided, which varies from year to year. It is best to start looking for tickets online from mid-May, as normally they’re not available any earlier (sales may start much later as well).

Want to see calcio storico in Florence?