Calcio Storico Fiorentino
Michele McPhee, Boston crime writer, finds an Italian sport that combines 5 centuries of tradition with MMA-style violence: 'Historic Florentine football'
Imagine finding the toughest guys, the bar bouncers and MMA fighters, combat soldiers and triathletes, in the most hardscrabble neighborhoods of gritty cities all over America. South Boston. South Philly. Chicago Lawn. Southside Los Angeles. Poletown East Detroit.
Don these handsome brutes in puffy 16th-century inspired pantaloons and little else. Chiseled muscles of course. Heavily tattooed. Put them in a sand pit in front of a historic church and let them beat one another bloody, even unconscious, for control of a soccer ball. There are few rules. Choking. Head-butting. Kicking. Punching. All allowed. Sucker punches are pretty much the only move prohibited, that and kicking from behind.
In Italy that 500-year-old sport is called Calcio Storico Fiorentino, or Florentine football, a mix of Mixed Martial Arts fighting, rugby, wrestling and soccer. It's not just about points scored into the goal on the playing field of roughly 80 yards by 40 yards by the 27 calcianti, or kickers, that crowd the sand for each team. It's about who is the strongest among them as they brutally battle like Roman gladiators for exactly 50 minutes straight. The game is about honor, history. And neighborhood. Players on the four teams Santa Croce (blue), Santo Spirito (white), Santa Maria Novella (red), and San Giovanni (green) are regular guys, working men, who must be from Florence (or at least have lived in the city for a decade straight) in order to fight.
Bragging rights is the real trophy. That and a steak dinner. The prize presented to the winning team is a Chianina cow. Literally livestock. In Italy the treasured Chianina provides the meat for the spectacular dish bistecca alla Fiorentina: or steak Florentine.
This summer I used my press-pass to sneak into what is now considered the most brutal match in the sport's recent history, blue vs. white in the sand in front of the magnificent Santa Croce church. Blue considers itself the more hardscrabble neighborhood of the two, with white comprised of players from the wealthier, therefore more gentile, area. Americans are not usually in attendance at Calcio Storico as the tickets are nearly impossible to get. But I am not one to take no for an answer. I flashed my press card and grinned at a security guard, who then waved me in past the security gates that ringed Plaza Santa Croce. Once inside I tried to stand smack dab in the middle and luckily I had a neutral black T-shirt on, which would prove prudent once the riot police crowded the pitch.
From the start it was one of the most mesmerizing things I have ever witnessed, even for a Bostonian who has gloated over World Series wins, Super Bowl victories, NBA Championships, and Stanley Cups. Some of those wins left the city upended with violent chaos and riots, including one in 2004 after the Red Sox defeated the New York Yankees that left a woman dead after she was shot in the head with a "nonlethal" Boston Police officer's pellet gun. Certainly the US has its ugly rivalries that have erupted into fisticuffs at sporting events. Yet nothing prepared me for Calcio Storico Fiorentino, from the blinding smoke show of fireworks that signaled the start of the procession – which included the teams and the cow being paraded around the cage to cheers and jeers – to the abrupt end of the match I snuck into 17 minutes after it started.
There are not a lot of rules in the game, but punching a referee in the face will definitely be disqualifying, which is exactly what a player for blue did after a questionable call. He refused to leave the pitch. An unsanctioned brawl between players from both teams ensued. Riot police were called in. The match was halted. Ambulances crowded the field. Fights broke out in the street between fans of opposing teams as I hustled away from the church. Blue was expelled from the competition entirely. White celebrated a tidy victory. The match is still the subject of chatter at barrooms all over both neighborhoods like the Green Street bar, owned by Fiorentino-American Tyler Poggi.
I was among the spectators who made my way there to escape the bloodied, broken bodies left in the sand and to escape the mayhem in the streets started by the stunned fans. After being astonished that I got into the match at all, Poggi filled me in about the sport's importance to the city, profiled some of the modern-day gladiators, and detailed how they train. The sport even has a centuries-old headquarters in Florence, not far from the historic Duomo di Firenze church, well worth a visit.
"The players are legends in their neighborhoods, regular guys who give up everything to train for calcio," Poggi explained. "It's taken very seriously. The players are very humble. It's about representing their area. Everyone in the city is waiting for June, waiting for the matches. Bars fight for the tickets. It's wildly important to our history, to our city. It's not about the prize, it's about the glory of winning."
Poggi is from Chicago and we together fantasized about bar bouncers and combat veterans and brawny tattooed laborers from our toughest United States neighborhoods squaring off in a sand pit like modern-day Gladiators in American cities. It's only a matter of time before a fight promoter or a Dana White (Massachusetts born guy behind MMA) wannabe sees the value of this historic sport being brought to the US, if not just for the cool T-shirts. Especially now that the US is awaiting the well-publicized debacle of Floyd Mayweather the boxing legend fighting MMA superstar Conor McGregor in a bout that already has fans crying foul as news broke that ticket codes were sold for $200, making it impossible to get into the fight.
If a lightweight boxing champ can duel with a MMA cage fighter why wouldn't Calcio Storico succeed here?
Until that day comes I am making plans to return to Florence next June and Poggi has promised me tickets to the final, which always takes place on the day of the Feast of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence.