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
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.
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
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.