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The Fight Game Within Calcio Storico – ‘Historical Football’

A new docuseries streaming on Netflix features regional sports from across that world that incorporate some form of combat within their play. Home Game documents sporting events practically unknown to the outside world, but in their native region these sports and their stars attract large crowds. Some of the games that involve elements of fighting trace their history back centuries. 

The first episode in the Home Game series visits Florence, Italy for a look inside calcio storico — or “historical football”. The full contact sport dates back centuries and is also known as Calcio Fiorentino or Calcio Storico Fiorentino. This ancient sport is an ancestor to modern ball games like soccer, rugby and American football. Except this is basically no holds barred futbol. This sport in its purest form is a true “fight game.”

Instead of running plays to advance the balls, teams square off in a literal fight to move the ball. When enough members of an opposing team are immobilized, players can move the ball down the field towards the goal. Players can move the ball by running with it like American football or rugby, kicking the ball like soccer, or passing the ball back and forth as in basketball. Contact with the ball by any body part is legal. 

The ball can be thrown, kicked, bounced, or carried beyond the goal line to score. Likewise, the other team can intercept, steal, or block the ball by almost any means necessary. The proverbial kill the guy with the ball come to life. The rules are slim, but the game still has structure. A code of honor also seems to exist between combatants.

The code is rooted in the game’s history symbolically honoring the culture of Florence. Beyond being a sporting event, calcio storico is a ritual that is much more than just a game. Teams play not just for themselves and their teammates, they compete for the heart of the city.

Teams must surely compete with a true love for the game, because calcio storico seems like a way of life in many ways. It most certainly cannot be a professional sport, because no one is paid to play. No multi-million dollar guaranteed contracts or collective bargaining agreements. No prize money. Sport in its purest form.

The Home Game series follows players from two teams as they prepare for their set of matches in 2019. While the Netflix series captures the spirit of the game, the episode is slightly over 30 minutes in run time. That is a disadvantage for the show as an explanation of the rules leaves out some important details. In other media outlets, the sport is often portrayed as having no rules, which is not true. There are rules, but those rules are few.

Home Game is available to watch in English and other languages. The series goes beyond the sport to capture the culture.

Home Game also offers a short history of the sport that is informative, yet some details and context is left out probably due to time constraints. Nonetheless, the documentary is a great starting point for learning about the sport. Let us further explore the history and rules to get a much better grasp on what exactly is calcio storico.

The Roman game of harpastum played by Legionaries came to Florence in 59 B.C. That would plant a seed that took centuries to grow. Early forms of calcio storico would take shape in later centuries. Games date back to at least the 15th Century, and possibly as far back as the 14th Century. The 16th Century offers a starting place for Calcio Storico Fiorentino.

Fittingly enough, a sporting tradition that is essentially a war game was born out of war. Florence was under siege and surrounded by the army of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1530. To show their defiance and resolve in spite of the siege, Florentines organized a game played on February 17, 1530 in full view of the surrounding troops. This is largely considered the birthplace of the Calico Storico Fiorentino tradition.

Official rules drafted in 1580 gave an organized structure, even if the game was basically still bedlam. This became a refined sort of bedlam reserved for aristocrats and the elite of society. Popes and clergy apparently even played the sport in Vatican City. The popularity of the game began to fade in the 17th Century, and was for the most part nonexistent in the 18th Century. A few games were played late in the 19th Century. However, a revival of the sport in the 20th Century would begin a whole new tradition. That tradition is rooted firmly in a past that makes it distinctly Florentine.

Piazza Santa Croce in Florence

The revival of the sport in the 1930s ushered in a new era of the sport within Italy. In modern times, Florence has become the cradle of the sport as really the only city to host any games of note. Three games are played annually starting with two semifinals, and the winners face off in a final. The finale is played days later on June 24 as part of the Feast of Saint John the Baptist — or La Festa di San Giovanni. The three games all take place in a makeshift arena erected in Piazza Santa Croce in front of a church, Basilica di Santa Croce. A statue of Dante overlooks the piazza and the games.

Four teams representing different regions of Florence make up the teams in the annual tournament. The birthplace of the players — or the Calcianti — decides which team they can join. Ideally there are no switching teams, as Calcianti play for the district in which they were born. The only exception is someone living in an area for 10 years or longer can play for that district in a revised rule enacted within the last decade. Teams in the four districts have a designated color, and each team is named after a historic church in the area. 

From the northwest quadrant is Rossi — or the “Red” team — of Santa Maria Novella. The northeast has Verdi — or “Green” team — of San Giovanni. The southwest part is Bianchi — “White” team — of Santo Spirito. Representing the southeast quadrant is Azzurri — “Blue” team — of Santa Croce, which basically gives them a de facto home field advantage in a way since the games take place in front of their home church. Regardless, all of the teams are playing to honor all of Florence. That is even more evident in the color schemes

Players and officials wear uniforms that are period costumes depicting the Renaissance. Each team has costumes with their designated color. Combining the various colors of the four teams creates the color purple, so each team uniform is also trimmed in purple since they all together represent Florence. 

Calcio storico as a game is largely unchanged since its revival in the 1900s, but heated rivalries and brawls led to the suspension of games for two years in the mid-2000s. A brawl erupted in 2006 before a game, leading to the suspension of that game and the season itself. The sport returned in 2008 with some stricter guidelines and more rigid rules like banning convicted criminals from playing on a team. That allowed games to resume again, even if police broke up a riot among teams in 2017. The only disruption in play since then is the ongoing global pandemic in 2020 causing a postponement of play until possibly later this year, or maybe even next year in 2021.

Each game is preceded by a parade through the streets of Florence leading to the outdoor arena. Teams march down the street to the field of play. Spectators cheer them while many fans ignite flares that sent their team’s color billowing into a cloud of smoke. After the parade but before the game, pomp and circumstance remain the order of the day. Ceremonial displays and proclamations take spectators back in time to a bygone era. Tradition is an important aspect of the sport, and possibly even the most important.

In keeping with tradition, the prize for the winning team is a Chianina cow. The breed of beef cattle is native to Italy, which makes it another nod to local tradition. Teams in centuries past would slaughter the cow and cook it for a feast. Nowadays, the prize cow is more symbolic as the bovine is spared from slaughter on that day. However, there is still a feast. As noted earlier, teams are not paid to play. Their only prizes are basically honor, glory, and the cow. 

So, how do they win the cow? Often the sport of calcio storico is described as having no rules. While the rules are limited, rules still indeed exist. 

Games run 50 minutes continuously in length with no breaks and no substitutions. Each team starts the game with 27 players on the playing field, which is called a “pitch”.  The sandy pitch itself is covered in dirt to recreate the environment of the ancient games. The rectangular pitch measures approximately 80 meters long and 40 meters wide. A goal on each end runs the width of the field. A wooden wall just slightly over waist-high surrounds the pitch on all sides, including the goal. A marble-like object called a batipalla marks the center of the field.

Scoring requires teams to get the ball into the goal by any means necessary. What would be called a goal in other sports is referred to as a caccia. Scoring a caccia earns a team one point, but if the ball misses and sails over the top of the goal, then the opposing team is awarded half of a point. The team with most points at the end of the game are declared the winners.

Besides the 27 players on each team, eight officials that try their damndest to maintain order in such a chaotic sport. Those include six linemen, a field master and the Judge Commissioner.  The judge stays off the field while the others are on the field in the midst of chaos. The field master carries a sword in a sheath, and he wears a plumed hat with a feather that he uses to wave around to indicate which team has possession of the ball. 

In addition to the 27 players, teams have a captain and “standard bearers” that are in essence coaches. They are allowed to roam freely on the field, but they cannot participate in the actual game other than giving advice. They may stay in a tent in the center of each goal. When a caccia is scored by their team, the standard bearer runs around the field waving his team’s flag. Play does not stop for this as time continues to run on the play clock. Time stops for nothing.

The 27 players on each team are made up of four goalkeepers, three fullbacks, five halfbacks and 15 forwards. The differing positions are mainly for strategy, but their designation is really in name only in terms of what they are allowed to do on the pitch. It is basically a free-for-all where any player can possess the ball, and any player can attack, or be attacked. The forwards do most of the fighting, as their job to to immobilize opponents so their team can advance the ball towards the goal.

The red team featured in “Home Game”

Players can punch, kick, grapple, or assault their opponents in almost any way imaginable. The only attacks banned by the rules are head kicks. Calcianti also ideally only fight each other in one-on-one combat. More than one person attacking an opponent at a time is against the rules. Such infractions of the rules can result in a player being ejected from the game. Standard bearers are also subject to expulsion if they break the rules. 

No substitutions after someone is kicked out of game, as teams must play outnumbered if players leave the pitch for expulsion or injury. One strategy in the game is injuring players to give the other team a distinct disadvantage. Injuries in such a violent game are very prevalent, and Calcianti are often carted off the pitch via a stretcher. Medics rush onto the pitch to tend the wounded, all while the violence and chaos continues around them like an actual battlefield. Play is not stopped for injuries, or really anything else except when time finally expires. A riot might be the only exception.

Although there are no reported deaths during a game, hospitalizations and debilitating injuries occur often in the midst of a match. The game still never stops until the very end. The sand pit that makes up the pitch does injuries no favors as dirt mixes with sweat to pour into cuts and abrasions. By the end of a game the pitch is littered with trash and scraps of torn clothing as the sand soaks up the spilled blood. Medics in yellow suits tend to the wounded during play, and they also offer bottled water so players can rinse the dirt out of their faces. Safety is seemingly not much of a priority, but it is at least something of a concern. 

Injuries are a distinct part of the game, and teams are actively trying to hurt or immobilize opposing players as part of their strategy to advance the ball. There is still honor among opponents, as someone taken down can tap out. If the attacker is honorable, he will stop the assault. When a player is taken down to the dirt and tapped out, that player is ruled down. He and his attacker remain down until a team scores. 

A takedown does not automatically mean the players are ruled down, as the fight can continue on the ground. Teammates sometimes make a save by sacrificing their own well being, as players holding others down can jump up to attack another player. They can also trip or block the path of players running around them. This all adds to the chaos.

Takedowns and the general flow of the game has seemingly changed within the advent and popularity of mixed martial arts. Watching games from the 1980s, the ball seemed to move much more freely as the pace was more like a soccer match. In the 2000s that seemed to change as the fighting adapted to new techniques. Decades ago, players would immobilize opponents by holding each other while remaining upright in a stance. More contemporary techniques look more like MMA with people gaining the mount or being placed in the guard. Teams still trained in boxing and wrestling long before mixed martial artists. Nevertheless, MMA now greatly influences the flow of the game.  

Roughly the first ten minutes of the modern game is mostly fights in the pitch between forwards. As the fighting breaks out, the ball handlers from a team pass the ball back and forth among themselves in what is essentially the backfield. They are looking for an opportunity to move the ball. They can run with it nestled in their arms. They can pass or kick it. They can move the ball partially anyway they want. Defenders can also attack the ball any way they want. Someone possessing the ball can be punched, kicked (though not in the head), tackled, or otherwise assaulted by their opponents. 

The game gets bloody rather quickly, and is most certainly a sport for mature audiences. Violence and brutality is not only an aspect of the game, it is a hallmark of calcio storico. Actions seen as unsportsmanlike conduct in other sports is not only legal in calcio storico, but highly encouraged. There is still sportsmanship among the teams as this is not all out war, even if it is essentially a war game derived from the games troops played to stay in fighting shape. 

Friends are sometimes matched-up on opposing sides. They fight for their district, but they are not necessarily fighting each other individually. No matter the team, they all come to fight for Florence just as Florentines did when they were under siege in 1530. 

Calcio Storico Fiorentino is one of the most unique sports in the world, and one of the oldest. The sport is a precursor to other contemporary sporting events that followed it. Despite its rich and storied history dating back centuries, calcio storico is essentially now a niche sport. Even in a digital age where games are accessible all over the world via modern technology, the sport has not expanded further outside of Florence. It remains nested in Italy as one of the sporting world’s proverbial best keep secrets. That may suit Florence just fine as the sport is a celebration of its own distinct culture. 

Teams may play for Florence, but the history they keep alive has a legacy that inspired many other sports of its kind. The main difference between those sports and calcio storico itself is the other sports are just ball games. Calcio storico is a fight game.

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