What do water polo, slam ball, polocrosse, football, and tennis have in common?
These are all hybrid sports that have combined two or more sports seamlessly to create a competitive new sport, most of which have been easy on the eye and the majority of sports fans would not find anything amiss in the combinations. But by marrying football, rugby and mixed martial arts, a masculine new sport is born.
Enter ‘Calcio Florentino’ the local name for Florentine historical football. ‘Calcio Florentino’ is not a modern hybrid sport, but a game which originated in 16th Century Italy and continues to be played today after witnessing a revival in the 1930s.
One on one fights, tripping, tackling and even submissions are common sights in the game, as two teams of 27 play the game for 50 minutes, with absolutely no substitutions allowed even with the prevalence of injuries in the violent sport. You may be forgiven for thinking that Florentine historical football is actually a deathmatch, but it is not, as the objective is not to knock out all opposition players but to score as many goals as possible by throwing or kicking the ball into the opposition goal nets.
With permission of many fighting techniques in the sport, fights and brawls are just common tactics to reduce opposition numbers so that goals can be scored with ease. Deaths never occured in the history of the sport but new rules have been created to improve safety, such as the prohibition of striking opponents from behind, striking opponents already on the ground or ganging up for fights. (Only one to one fights are permitted). Violations of these rules result in expulsion for culpable players.
Image by Stefano Pogliani
It was believed that the Florentines who created it in the early 16th century drew inspiration from the Roman sport of ‘Harpastum’ – an ancient form of football that combines football, rugby, and wrestling which served as a training exercise for legionnaires and gladiators at the height of the Roman Empire. The most famous Florentine historical football game was played while Florence was under siege by the Holy Roman Empire and Spain in 1530. It was organized as a symbol of strength and defiance. It was played frequently till interest waned in the 17th century before it was revived again in the 1930s by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who promoted it as part of his regime’s focus on glorifying Italy’s past. As a result, amateur games were held up and down across the country in the mid-1900s.
Today, a Florentine historical football game is more of a celebration cum historical re-enactment as only three matches are played a year, all in the third week of June held at the square in Piazza Santa Croce in Florence, where the game originated. The square is covered in dirt for the games, similar to conditions in the 16th century. The city’s population turns out in throngs every year, decked in their team’s colors to support one of the four teams (blues, reds, greens or whites) that represent a quartiere (one of four territorial subdivisions) of the city.
Two opening games are played and the two respective winners compete in the finals held on St. John’s Day, the feast day for Florence’s patron saint on the 24th of June. There is even a parade in historical costume (medieval pageant) featuring all participating players, including those who are not playing in the final. True to its spirit, there are no prize presentations or fancy award ceremonies at the end of it, as glory – and perhaps a free steak, are the only things at stake for the local Florence players (winning team gets a free meal at a restaurant).
We have come to know football as ‘the beautiful game’, a game played with increasing grace, tactical ingenuity and easy on the eye passing. But this variant of football incorporated with martial arts certainly retains the more barbaric nature of our human history, seemingly immune to the evolution of sports as it continues to be played in such a primitive format. It may not be a beautiful game, but Florentine historical football or ‘the kicking game’, is certainly a spectacle to behold.
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