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Florence the cradle of modern football

Florentine Fancy-Dress Violent Football

The Italian city of Florence is renowned for its art gallerys and architecture, but it also hosts a unique sporting event that should not be missed. It's the game that claims to be the origin of modern football.

Pieces of ear have been spat onto the playing field in the Piazza Santa Croce a long time before Tyson got his first bite in the ring. Broken noses are standard, other bone fractures more rare, and punches and kicks are part and parcel of the game. The word 'calcio', used in Italy for 'soccer', actually means 'kick'.

This particular Florentine style of football is really a mixture of wrestling, rugby and football. Its roots derive from an ancient Greek ball game, later adapted by Roman legionaries from Florence to keep fit.

Since ye olde times, Florence has been divided into four quarters, or four teams each with its own color - Santa Croce (blue), Santo Spirito (white), San Giovanni (green) and Santa Maria Novella (red). Each team has 27 players - four goal-keepers, three full-backs, five half-backs and 15 attackers - an arrangement reminiscent of a Roman battleorder.

The contests were originally played on the famous 'Piazze' (squares) of Florence by young physically fit men of noble origin. A Florentine noble, Giovanni Maria de` Bardi, wrote in 1580 that "football is such a noble and gentle game that only honoured soldiers, gentlemen, lords and princes can play. The players have to dress in light and beautiful livery... they must to look graceful, trim and charming because they will be seen by the ladies, and the most important gentlemen of the city..." Hence the term 'Fancy-Dress Football'.

The Medicis, lords of Florence, and even some famous popes like Clemente VII, Leone XI and Urbano VIII used to be good players. Obviously before they made Popes.

The game was exported when rich Florentine merchants made long sorties abroad. They organised matches to stare off boredom and homesickness. Sometimes they even brought over players from Florence. It was hard to live without football especially when the TV hadn`t been invented yet.

One of the most famous 'Calcio in Costume' matches was played on the 10th January 1491, chronicled by Luca Landucci in his contemporary diary. The match took place on the frozen river Arno between Ponte Vecchio (the Old Bridge) and Ponte Trinita`.

Nowadays matches are played in June. The final contest falls on the anniversary of Florence`s patron-saint Giovanni Battista (John the Baptist). Something not to be misssed if you`re there in June.



Then Florence regales itself in medieval atmosphere, to celebrate the 17th February 1530 when Republican Florence was besieged by the imperial troops of Carlo V. In 1530 Piazza Santa Croce was chosen as the football-field because it was considered the best place to be seen and heard by the enemy encamped on a hill outside the walls. What a shock to the besieging troops which believed Florence to be already exhausted and yielding.

The Florentine musicians kept their enemy abreast of the score. As a goal was scored they let out triunphant trunpet blasts from the roof of the Santa Croce church. The king`s army replied with gun-shots from 'culverins' (small canons of the time), but even this couldn`t stop play.

Since, matches start with a procession all around the streets of the old town accompanied by trumpet blasts and the roll of drums. All 530 participants, players, soldiers, musicians, noblemen and flagwavers dress in 16th century costumes. Ocasionally the procession stops and 'calverin' canons with blanks are set off.

The Piazza S. Croce is covered with earth and divided in the centre by a white line. On both sides its limits are marked by a net which hangs over a palisade and is stretched along the entire width of the field. All around the playing area thousands of supporters and tourists attend every move watching for the outbreak of a fight. The attention is then focused at the fight not the game and hence its violent reputation.

One referee, eight signalmen and a tenth man outside the field, the Commissary Judge, seem incapable of controlling a game where anything goes. The only rule is that the ball can not be still. Players often come to blows or perform martial arts one each other. Most of the players also box, do karate or judo, or are club bouncers. Nice chaps.

If the ball enters in the opposition`s net, that`s a goal. A player, who once held the ball so tight that nobody could wrestle it from him, was thrown in the net, ball and all. No corners are allowed - if one is made, it`s a goal to your opponent. So the defense has to be very careful. Play last 50 minutes plus extra time.

When two goals are scored, one point is awarded, and a canon shot is sounded. The teams change ends, and the scoring team`s supporters fill the air with coloured smoke - the colour of the team. The winning team earns a calf rather than a cup - which today means thick, rare, bloody steaks, the so called Florentines.

The brawls aren`t exlusive to the playing fields. Fights break out in the bars of the quarters between rival supporters and players. But rest assured, they will never touch a tourist.

Jane from Birmingham, 24, a waitress in Florence says, "it`s as if all the supporters of Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Newcastle United lived together in a small town and the championship took place over only three weeks."

It`s the macho attitude that belongs to football. Something that happens every weekend in all the towns of the world where football means life. And for the Florentines to belong to a team, to a quarter, is a tradition harboured in their hearts since Roman times. It seems they can`t help it.

Simone, 35, owns a bar in the Whites` suburb, "I know some Reds` and Blues` players - they are regulars. I stand for the Whites and they know that. They are nice with me all the year, they are Florentine like me. In June they drink their usual stuff or offer bottles of wine to their friends and then run off without paying, and with a sarcastic smile on their faces."

"Our bouncers can`t do anything. They go to the same gym. What are they to do ? During this period all players have to show that they are cool and scared of nothing because they are strong and they play in a strong team. And I do understand this."

Florence`s history has always seen internal fights for the supremacy of one family over another - Guelfi against Ghibellini, Bianchi against Neri, nobles against rich merchants.

The beautiful buildings down-town - those houses with towers, or those imposing Palazzi - had first a defensive function and second were built to show the importance, richness and power of the family who lived there.

The Palazzo Vecchio for example, now the town hall of Florence, has a corridor (Corridoio Vasariano) that leads through the Uffizi Gallery and Ponte Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti, a real fortess that the Medici family used to escape in case of revolts.

Florence is so small and beautiful. If you were born there you would defend the colours of your quarter, and their beautiful dominating churches such as the Santa Croce or Santa Maria Novella. These churches dominate their quarters. Their impressive facades suddenly loom up before you as you emerge from the narrow medieval streets.

Next tournament I will support the Whites. I`ve found a couple of nice cafes in that area which are quiet and cute. Just in front of the relaxing Brunelleschi`s Santo Spirito Church, I will sip a Chianti and immerse myself in the ancient culture. After a couple of glasses, I`m sure I`ll be shouting ancient abuse at the Blues.

 

Text and pictures by Felice Petrelli

 
 
 
   
 
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