Football (or soccer) is one of the world’s most popular pastimes; professional leagues have extensive, devoted, and extremely passionate followings. The sport is believed to be the descendant of a variety of ancient ball games, particularly those enjoyed by the Romans and Greeks. Although nearly all of these versions eventually died out and gave way to the current form of football, one precursor to the modern game has survived.
Originating in the sixteenth century, the game is now referred to as calcio storico (historic football) or calcio fiorentino (after Florence, the city where it is still played). While the roots of modern football are evident in calcio storico (primarily as players use their feet to maneuver the ball toward the opposing team’s goal), there are also stark contrasts between the modern and historic games. Storico matches often appear more similar to rugby than football, as players can also use their hands to manipulate the ball and are permitted to be exceptionally violent.
Calcio storico allows the use of a wide range of strikes against opponents. Throwing of punches, elbows, and headbutts are all legal according to official rules, as is choking an opponent. Its combative style requires a unique type of athleticism from its players. During the 1500s, the game became notorious beyond Italy for its violent nature. The French king Henry III, who attended a match while on a diplomatic visit to Venice, is said to have remarked that storico was “…too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game.”
Like many other predecessors to football, calcio storico eventually lost popularity and support. It largely fell from practice during the 1600s. Fortunately, however, cultural and historic interest (as well as a desire to distinguish Italian sport from that of its neighbors) brought about its revival in 1930. A limited number of games are played annually in Florence, with four teams representing each quarter of the city. As with many traditions in Italy, the final match corresponds with a religious holiday, and is held on the feast of the patron of Florence, San Giovanni (St. John).
Rules established in the sixteenth century remain in use today; calcio storico is still as brutal a sport as it first was. Fifty-minute matches are played on sand fields, with long, narrow goals at each end. Teams consist of twenty-seven men, and matches require a total of seven officials. Traditional uniforms (namely pants in the sixteenth-century style) are used by the teams from each quarter, which are designated by a color (red, blue, green, or white).
The rebirth of calcio storico has preserved a unique aspect of Italian history and culture. Its annual matches bring the Renaissance back to life each year, and just as modern football is linked to this sixteenth-century ancestor, storico has its roots in the ancient Roman game of harpastum. Although the immediate attention of locals and visitors at the yearly matches is always on sport, calcio storico calls to mind a rich history and the importance of its preservation.