Welcome to Calcio Storico, a centuries-old competition in Florence with very few rules and the sort of human wreckage generally associated with the gladiators. Dating back to 16th century Italy, today’s calcio storico (see photos from The Guardian here), or historic soccer, may be both the most violent form of soccer in the world. It is played only in Florence, Italy, where four 27-man teams representing four historic Florentine neighborhoods—Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, Santo Spirito, and San Giovanni—face off to beat each other to a pulp, every June. Kicks to the head are forbidden. So are fights of two or more against one. Everything else goes, making the goal of moving a leather ball from one end of the field to another seem like a side note to the bloody proceedings.
Last Tuesday, about 24 hours before he jammed his fingers into another man’s nose, dropped his elbow across another man’s neck and put another man’s feet where one’s ears are supposed to be, Rodrigue Nana considered, just for a moment, the basic notion of fear.
“Do you want to know what I am afraid of?” he said, his fingers tracing the meaty scar above his left eyebrow. Nana, a Cameroon-born transplant to Italy, leaned forward, as if to share a secret. “I am afraid of showering.”
He did not laugh. Neither did any of his teammates sitting nearby. This was not a time for joking; Nana and the rest of his team were about to begin their last training session before last Wednesday’s final match of calcio storico.
Nana and his friends have endless stories. There was the player whose ankle shattered at the bottom of a dog pile. The one who went into a coma after being punched in the back of the head. The guy whose ear was bitten off in the middle of a scrum. In one game, Nana had his shaved scalp cut open the way a letter opener slices an envelope.
“The thing is,” Nana continued, “when you’re playing, you don’t feel any of it.
“But then you calm down and take a shower. And that is when everything starts to burn.”
A few of the other men, who ranged in age from their late teenage years to their mid-40s, nodded. None of them could say why, exactly, they were sitting on dilapidated benches beside a raggedy field, could not put into words what, exactly, made them spend four months preparing to play, at most, two games that almost always required some form of medical attention afterward.
They just knew that they felt they had no choice. For many, it was simply hard-wired history. This grand city has four historical quarters, each with a church at its center, and calcio storico, which is believed to date to the 15th century, is played by one team from each neighborhood. To play for your neighborhood team — to wear the Verdi (green) of San Giovanni or the Azzurri (blue) of Santa Croce or the Bianchi (white) of Santo Spirito or the Rossi (red) of Santa Maria Novella — is, as Niccolò Innocenti of the Verdi put it, “deeply Florentine.”
“When I played for the first time, the sensation I had was one of truly being a man,” he said.