DG’s World-Wide Sports/Travel Diary:
The Insane Sport I Encountered In Italy

By David Glenn
North Carolina Sports Network

Most of my sports travels beyond the continental United States have included playing or watching a familiar sport … but in an unforgettable place.

That list of memorable thrills includes Premier League soccer in England, French Open tennis in Paris, skiing in Switzerland, handball in Germany, beach volleyball in French Polynesia (Tahiti and Bora Bora!), surfing in Hawaii, zip-lining in Costa Rica, curling in Canada, playing golf in Mexico, etc.

This summer, I traveled to Italy during a specific 10-day time window to see an absolutely wild and crazy sport that, until recently, I didn’t even know existed. In modern times, the sport’s entire “season” takes place in a single city over consecutive weekends in the latter half of June, so timing was essential.

The Italians call their truly unique sport Calcio Storico (CAL-cho STORE-ee-koh) or Calcio Fiorentino (CAL-cho FYOR-enn-tee-noh).

Billed as “The Original Goal Game” — meaning the main way to score points is to get the object, in this case a soccer ball, into your opponent’s goal — Calcio Storico was created in the 15th century, during the Italian Renaissance.

Supposedly, back in the 1400s, there were even popes who played this game in Vatican City. For centuries, it was considered a “nobleman’s game,” played by only distinguished soldiers, princes, lords and other noblemen of the time. Today, the game is played by commoners … and sometimes hardened criminals.

In the goal-scoring sense, Calcio Storico is like soccer, American football, rugby, hockey, lacrosse and other sports we know well. Like the end zone in American football, the area a team needs to reach to score a goal runs the entire width of the field, so that’s obviously a very wide (about 50 meters) net.

Here are some other basic rules of the sport, which won’t sound too unusual … until the end:

Match Time = The matches last 50 minutes. That doesn’t sound long until you hear more about the rules.

Field Size = The field is roughly 50 meters wide by 100 meters long, so not dramatically different than the dimensions of an American football field. A white line divides the field into two identical squares, and a goal net runs the width of each end.

Team Size = There are 27 players on each side, and all of them are on the field at the same time. Most teams assemble their 27 players as four goalkeepers (remember, the field is very wide), three fullbacks, four halfbacks and 15 forwards. There also is a non-playing captain or coach for each side, and he spends the game in a tent situated at the center of his defensive goal net. These captains don’t actively participate in the game, but they can organize their teams and even occasionally help the referees, mainly to minimize the possibility of — this will make sense soon — absolute chaos.

Substitutions = There are absolutely no substitutions, even for injured/ejected players. Teams rarely finish a match with 27 players.

Officials = There’s a referee, six linesmen and a “commissioner,” who is positioned above the field and steps onto it only when things get completely out of control.

Points = A team earns one point each time one of its members carries, throws or kicks the ball into the opponent’s goal. A team’s opponent receives 1/2 point each time someone on the initial team kicks or throws the ball over the net.

Direction = The teams change sides after each goal.

Prize = In the old days, the winning team got a prized cow, a little money, and a painted piece of fabric called a “palio,” which is a bit like a flag. In modern times, everyone agrees that it’s mostly about bragging rights.

So, why would these non-playing team captains have to be assigned the task of preventing “absolute chaos?”

Well, in Calcio Storico, not only are you are allowed to fight — like, say, in the National Hockey League — there are no penalties for most forms of fighting!!

In fact, one common tactic is to gain control of the ball, have your teammates wear down your opponents by brawling with them, then try to advance the ball toward the offensive goal.

If you’ve ever seen what they call a “Battle Royale” in pro rasslin’, where guys are paired off all over the ring beating on each other, it’s sort of like that, except there are no ropes, no squared circle, no throwing each other over the top rope to eliminate each other, etc. The brawls just keep going and going and going.

Get this: Head-butting, punching, elbowing, and choking are all not only permitted, they’re expected!!

While some rules have changed over the years — often in response to one of the participants actually dying during a match or as a result of injuries sustained during a match — the basics have remained the same.

Among the modern rules that have changed, 1-they have banned sucker punches (so you can hit the opponent who’s looking at you square in the jaw without penalty, but you can’t blindside a guy with a punch), 2-they have banned kicks directly to the head (because, you know, people were dying), 3-they have banned double-teaming a single opponent (you can’t attack a guy 2-on-1 or 3-on-1, etc.).

So, there aren’t many rules to enforce, but … any violation of these rules results in expulsion from the match. You’re done for the day. And, no, as you might guess, the ejected players do not always leave the playing field peacefully.

How wild and crazy can things get during these matches? Well, starting in the year 2000, there have been seven years where no champion was crowned. Why? Not because of the COVID pandemic, although that did cancel the 2020 event.

Seven of the last 23 events started but then were abandoned because of security concerns either on the field … or in the stands … or both!

Things have gotten so bad in some years that they’ve had to change the rules. When the event’s organizers saw teams purposely recruiting hardened criminals to play on their teams, and sometimes those games got completely out of hand, they had to make players with certain criminal convictions ineligible for competition. At one point, they adopted a 40-year-old age limit, in an attempt to reduce the number of serious injuries. When teams started recruiting professional MMA fighters from various parts of the world, the organizers adopted a rule that stated participants had to either be born in Florence or prove they had lived there for 10 years or longer. In some years, two “ringers” per team have been allowed.

The beautiful city of Florence, which hosts Calcio Storico each year, is famous for its amazing architecture, art, food, wine and history but also its fashion, gold products, leather products and many other ritzy things. The surrounding countryside, a region in central Italy known as Tuscany, is a stunningly beautiful place that attracts the rich and famous from all over the world.

As I listened to locals and took detailed notes about Calcio Storico, I was standing in the “Piazza Santa Croce” in downtown Florence. Chills went up my spine as I was told that the first documented match in that same square came in 1530 — almost 500 years ago!!

As I looked around the plaza, that historical reference to 1530 seemed believable, in part because of the history that surrounded us, even in 2023.

On one end of the plaza is a 14th century church. Over there is a towering, enormous marble statue of Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet, writer and philosopher who was born in Florence and wrote Divine Comedy (including the famous Dante’s Inferno) more than 700 years ago.

Right in the middle of this very busy Piazza Santa Croce business district, this town square of sorts, is a temporary Calcio Storico stadium. There are temporary bleachers for spectators, chain-link fences surrounding the perimeter, and a rectangular field filled with … sand.

Remember, Florence is not on the coast of Italy, so the sand was an unusual sight. We also had visited an unbelievably beautiful part of southern Italy called the Amalfi Coast; as you might guess, there was lots and lots of sand there. Naples also is on the West Coast of Italy, so … more sand. Florence, though, is inland, surrounded by the Tuscan countryside, so the sight of sand is unusual there. The entire scene was unforgettable.

By the way, Calcio Storico is definitely not a league; it’s barely an organization. The participants certainly don’t make a living in this sport. There are only three matches per year — two semifinals one week, and then the championship match between the semifinal winners the following week. These matches always take place in the latter half of June.

The city of Florence historically has been divided into quarters, and there is a team from each quarter each year:

Santa Croce/Azzurri (Blues)
Santa Maria Novella/Rossi (Reds)
Santo Spirito/Bianchi (Whites)
San Giovanni/Verdi (Greens)

Interest in Calcio Storico reportedly waned in Italy in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s, but it was officially brought back in 1930 … by none other than the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini. Seriously!

Calcio Storico was profiled in a 2008 Sports Illustrated magazine/website article entitled “Balls and Blood.” National Geographic also has tackled the topic a few times. Otherwise, beyond Italian media — a language in which I know only a few dozen words and a language I definitely can’t read — there isn’t much quality information out there on this one-of-a-kind spectacle.

So goes the truly bizarre sport of Calcio Storico. If I hadn’t encountered it with my own eyes, I’m not sure I would have believed it existed here in 2023.