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The Four Colours of Florence

Words:

Edd Norval
April 6, 2018

Florence is the home of the Renaissance. It's Italy's cultural capital where names like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo honed their crafts. Known for an illustrious past of beauty and intrigue, it would be a mistake to think that the dark side of the city has completely been forgotten.

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A bloody mixture of MMA and football is Calcio Storico (historic football). Four neighbourhoods of Florence, as dictated by the most prevalent churches, compete to take home the glory in the once a year occasion.


Modern day gladiators march into the sandy arena, bodies covered in tattoos, faces consumed with unbreakable concentration. After the match, they will not look in as good shape. Their bodies will be a Jackson Pollock canvas of blood - their own and their opponents, mixed with sand. The clay of the warrior.


A working-class sport that has its roots in the 15th century Florentine society - a game that was then played by aristocracy and even popes. Now the 27 men of each team go to battle to take home their grand prize - a free dinner.

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Anyone who doesn't understand why they'd put themselves through that for a good steak hasn't ever played competitive sport. It's about the glory of victory - about the bragging rights over your opponent. Football is becoming increasingly operated like a marketplace with competing companies, players are commodities to be bought and sold at eye-watering prices. Calcio Storico, with its traditional ethics is the antidote - it's a sport for the sake of competition. These men play for their colour, unlike the mercenary attitude that pervades contemporary football.


The pitch is an 80 x 40 metre sand-pit with goals running the width at each end. The aim is to get the ball into that net - although standing in your way are boxers, mixed martial artists and generally tough guys who can kick, punch and pin you until you can no longer reach your desired target.


Group attacks aren't allowed, so the fighting is 1-on-1. The most common tactic is for a team to try their best to get all of their opponents onto the ground and to keep them there, allowing for the faster players to make a dash goalwards. This happens with a mixture of greco-roman wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, adapted with the modern MMA sensibility.

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The men that take part are representing either the blues, reds, whites or greens - denoting their neighbourhood as Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, Santo Spirito or San Giovanni respectively. It's clear to see their love for the sport, the tradition and their dedication to becoming champions. The training going into this consists of techniques for the actual game as well as other skills that come in handy, like boxing and being able to run fast - depending on your role in the team.


Attired in traditional and garish pantaloons with bare torsos and football boots - it has an air of pantomime about it. Crowds cheer and jeer behind a caged partition, willing their neighbourhood to victory. The pride of the team isn't limited only to them, although the players become demi-gods for the remaining days of the year - their whole locale swell with pride when their colour is playing.


Celebrations go on all night after the feast with copious quantities of grappa fuelling the action. Despite being a sport that has existed for longer than many of the others that we revere now, it has never achieved mainstream acceptance - riots, injuries or disparaging leaders have always quelled its growth and its chances of being anything beyond a Florentine curiosity.

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It seems that its recent resurgence in popularity is a mixture of the hyper-connectivity that we embrace as part of our technologically advanced lives and our eagerness to find something untouched by modern malaises.


Disenfranchised with being sold everything that can be packaged, we long for something that is an alternative to the force-fed. The organic rise in popularity of this event, as highlighted by the amount of tourists that visit it annually as well as the view count on YouTube videos showing it, is something we should get behind - to an extent.


Just like any tradition it can easily become bastardised by the influence of foreign capital. It's when, or if, this happens that we will move onto the next thing - wherever in the world that may be. That means this will end up in the scrap heap, back to where it started - a part of the vicious cycle.


But for now, Calcio Storico remains the closest thing we have to a real glimpse of our past - a tradition that's visceral and primal, appealing to our animalistic instincts, whilst showing that there are still people out there who are willing to put their body on the line for more than just money. It's something of endangered beauty that we should protect.

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