Three paramedics armed with a stretcher and medical kits are racing onto the sun-soaked arena in the shadow of Florence’s atmospheric Santa Croce church – the burial ground of a certain Michelangelo (the artist, not the turtle) – to attend to an injured man whose leg has been so badly broken that his foot is facing west as opposed to the easterly direction in which his kneecap is pointing.
They gingerly lift him onto the stretcher, while around them a violet form of physical chess continues unabashed. A behemoth of a man – dressed in a Medieval costume with a girth that would shame John Goodman and a back that’s in desperate need of waxing – is wrestling an opponent to the ground. Elsewhere his teammates adopt the same tactic in an attempt to create space for one of their diminutive attackers to make a charge towards the opposition goal.
However, as the attacker ponders a safe route through to the promised land amid the chaos around him, an opponent wriggles free from his captor and, caring not a jot for the well-being of the injured player whose face is contorted in anguish, hurls himself over the stretcher and decks the ball-carrier, rubbing his head into the sandy surface for good measure.
Welcome to the Calcio Storico, the sporting event where the Medieval and modern worlds collide.
Pisa Airport, 3pm
For those of you who baulk at the price of admission to Universal Studios, here’s a tip; If you want to “enjoy” all the thrills and spills of the scariest rides on Planet Fairground, all you need to do is book yourself a taxi in Pisa. For ten minutes, as we head from the airport to the centre of town, I’m thrown around the back seat of a souped-up Peugeot 305 as though I’m on an epileptic Waltzer.
The plan is to visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa before heading to Florence ahead of tomorrow’s Calcio Storico, but, after the roads of Italy have battered me like a Mars Bar in Glasgow, I need a drink.
After a swift internet search, I’m dropped off, shaken and stirred, at an address purporting to be Big Ben’s English bar. However, the boozer that once sold beer by the bucket-load is now a derelict café. Pisa is a ghost town. I’m out of here.
Train bound for Florence, 7pm
Here’s another tip when travelling around Tuscany. Don’t assume that after buying your ticket from Pisa station you’re now free to board a train. Oh no. Apparently, you also have to scan your ticket through another machine before jumping aboard said locomotive. A female ticket-master, who in a previous life could have been pushing for a high-ranking position in the Gestapo, fines me five Euros. My attempt at pleading ignorance crashes and burns.
“We fell for that one yesterday when we were heading to Rome,” says an affable American tourist, who looks like Gerard Depardieu, but with an even more massive nose (if you can imagine that). It turns out he’s over here with nine members of his family in an attempt to track down long lost relatives.
The conversation moves seamlessly back and forth, until he asks for recommendations for public houses to frequent should he ever visit London. “Anywhere in Piccadilly, Oxford Street or maybe down in Soho,” I say. “The atmosphere’s great. There’s loads…”
“I’ve heard there’s a big gay population there,” interrupts his teenage son.
“Homosexuals?” says Pinocchio, in pure disgust. “I ain’t doin’ none a’ that Brokeback stuff.”
The atmosphere darkens. Silence invades our cosy carriage as if an unwanted relative who’s just come home from prison is asking if it’s okay to shoot up in the bathroom. Thankfully, the big-nosed one gets off at the next stop with his tribe of hillbillies. Those lucky, lucky relatives…
It’s a beautiful sunny day in Florence. It’s a national holiday and the city is mobbed with tourists busily taking photos of the stunning Renaissance architecture. The centre of Florence is a veritable banquet of elegant squares, palaces, parks, churches, monasteries, museums and art galleries. I’m not exactly a culture vulture, but even I can appreciate this.
The city is regarded as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, which saw the country emerge from the Middle Ages and transform itself into a modern European state. Plenty of Medieval traces survive today, however, and one of them is the Calcio Storico. Steeped in almost 500 years of tradition, the “game” has been described as a loose mix of rugby, football, gridiron and Greco-Roman wrestling with a healthy dose of bare-knuckle boxing thrown in. A report from last year’s event said, “Those who wince at the sight of blood are advised to stay well away.” Like Liam Gallagher crossed with a hungry vampire, I’m mad for it.
At 11am, as I finish a croissant in a café overlooking the famous Duomo (Florence Cathedral), a faint drumbeat can be heard in the distance. It draws nearer, drowning out the din of the hordes of people following the perpetually smiling travel guides armed with loudhailers. Policemen on horseback come into view, parting the groups of tourists like Moses splitting the Red Sea.
Emerging through the crowds are men dressed in period costumes, waving flags, blowing trumpets and banging drums. The crowds are brought to a standstill by the Calcio Storico pre-match procession. Make no mistake, this event is a big deal over here.
I follow the Calcio cortege through the streets. Even kids are dressed up to the nines in 16th-century clobber. In an effort to make sure the tradition is passed through from generation to generation, youngsters are encouraged to get involved from the cradle to the grave.
I pause for a long, lazy Mediterranean lunch with lashings of Chianti, before indulging in the finest ice cream I’ve ever tasted en route to the hotel for a swift freshen-up before the evening’s entertainment.
Piazza Santa Croce, 6pm
As I make my way to the stadium for the 7pm kick-off, the streets are busier than the first day of the January sales on Orchard Road.
I slip into the nominal warm-up area where the two sides are preparing for battle. Young 20-something girls are dressed in royal regalia to add to the spirit of the occasion, while an ageing farmer is showing off a well-fed cow that’s draped in a Florentine flag. “What’s this all about?” I ask. “Signore, this is the prize,” he replies, disgusted at my lack of knowledge of the standout event on the Florence sporting calendar.
“These guys are gonna risk life and limb for an Aberdeen Angus?” I ask. It would appear so… The White team (Santo Spirito) look all business as they rev themselves up for the challenge. Some pair off to practice their grappling skills, while others jog up and down the steps of the church, clearly focused on the task ahead.
We head down the road to where the Blues are getting ready. Grunts and groans can be heard from a hundred yards away as some of the most physically imposing specimens I’ve ever seen are limbering up. One guy, who’s shadow boxing with murderous intent outside a cosmopolitan coffee bar stands almost seven feet tall and has a head the size of a cement mixer. Another rips off his shirt and walks menacingly forwards, his biceps bulging like Popeye after a midnight feast on spinach. You wouldn’t mess with these chaps.
Before the rivals can get to grips with one another, there’s the denouement of the pre-match procession. Horsemen troop into the arena, followed by foot soldiers in ancient Florentine helmets. Twenty drummers wearing dashing yellow and blue silk tunics bang away, producing a tune so morose that I’m bracing myself for imminent death on the field of play.
The Ball Bearer marches onto the sandy pitch with the ball, followed by 26 infantrymen in colourful uniforms and feathers in their caps. It’s then that the prized cow is trooped onto the pitch as around us the locals cry out “Viva Fiorenza!”.
Musicians, flag bearers, mace carriers, referees and the players in their Renaissance attire then join the parade, walking in a clockwise direction around the arena to huge cheers. The butterflies are rushing through my body – I feel like I’ve been slugging Vodka Red Bulls for three days solid.
Looking around at the pomp and ceremony, it really could be the 17th of February, 1530, when the first official Calcio Storico took place at this very same arena. It was at a time when Florence had been invaded by King Charles V’s forces and a match was played between the Santo Spirito region and a team from San Giovanni in an attempt to provoke the English. It did the job; his Royal Majesty and the imperial army stared in utter disbelief at the contemptuous bravado on show.
The game continued to be played between the four districts of Florence – Santo Spirito, San Giovanni, Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce – well into the 18th century when, for a period of time, it mysteriously died out. But by 1930 it was back with three games – two semi finals and a final – played between the four districts towards the end of June to coincide with the celebration of St John’s Day (the Patron Saint of Florence). It’s been a permanent fixture ever since.
The sound of a cannon booms out and the parade retires to its seats for the match. It’s like being ringside for a WWF Royal Rumble, but the violence here is far from manufactured.
The two teams, each made up of 27 players, jog up and down the pitch, shaking hands with their opposite numbers, while the referee, six linesmen and a field master – who is there to intervene in the very likely event of fisticuffs – look on. They’re going to be rather busy for the next 50 minutes.
At each end of the pitch is a four-foot wooden wall that runs its entire length and when the round blue and white ball is tossed over said wall it denotes a “caccia” or a goal. According to the official rules, head-butting, punching, elbowing and choking are allowed; only sucker-punching and kicks to the head are outlawed. And to think you can get booked in football for tickling your opponent under the armpit these days.
“I hope someone gets really messed up today,” says a buxom American teenager, who’s here in Florence studying art. Moments later she gets her wish as a member of the Blue team (Santa Croce) has his cascading run down the right flank brought to a crashing halt by a flying head-butt. “Jesus, he’s got to be dead,” screams another of the American contingent. Somehow, the bloodied winger rises straight back to his feet, like an ancient gladiator after being felled in a Roman amphitheatre. These fellas are made of granite with half a ton of steel chucked in for good measure.
Coloured smoke bombs are launched as the battle hots up. The White team have started brightly, but the Blues have a scary self-assurance about them.
With the match finely poised at 2-2, the Blues’ short, super-fit attacker – who can’t be a day under 45 – starts to wrest control of the game, racing forward at every opportunity while his teammates, who all look like the Incredible Hulk but without the green sheen, dominate the physical confrontations.
By the halfway point, the White team are a spent force as the sun continues to beat down. Like when Chelsea hammered ten-man Arsenal in the Premier League back in March, it’s now a question of how many?
The answer is 11, while the White team remain marooned on three. It’s as convincing as it gets. At the final whistle, the Blues leap onto one another and launch themselves at the metal fences to share their unadulterated delight with the crowd. Fireworks explode as the colourful cortege re-enters the arena with the prized cow. We don’t want to speculate on what the future holds for the beast, but it’s safe to say that the sporting gods in the Blue costumes are anticipating a well-deserved feast this evening.