A brutal 15th-century game is still played in Florence. Rob McFarland joins its fans.
It's February 17 in the year 1530 and the city of Florence has been under siege for three months by the army of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In an act of defiance, the residents decide to play a football match on the embankment of the River Arno in full view of their would-be conquerors.
But this is no ordinary football match. This is the Calcio Storico, a brutal, bloody, no-holds-barred battle between two teams of 27 men. Does it stop the siege? No. The city falls six months later, but the match becomes a piece of historical folklore that is still celebrated.
Fast forward 480 years and I'm standing in a packed stand watching 54 men beat the living hell out of each other. When I'd heard that the Calcio Storico was still played each year I presumed it would be a tame re-enactment. But this is the real deal. People are getting hurt down there and the crowd loves it.
Normally, there are three matches - two semifinals and a final held on June 24, the public holiday for St John, the patron saint of Florence.
The matches are played between teams representing the four historic quarters of the city: San Giovanni (The Greens), Santa Maria Novella (Reds), Santa Croce (Blues) and Santo Spirito (Whites).
For some reason this year there is just the final between the Blues and the Whites and whenever I ask someone why they just shrug in that endearing Italian way and say they have no idea.
Before the match, marching bands in medieval costume accompany the players as they make their way to the makeshift dirt pitch in the piazza in front of Santa Croce church. A great roar goes up when the two teams enter the ground and start ripping their shirts off and rolling around in the dirt.
In years gone by, members of the nobility took part to show their strength and eligibility and the sudden appearance of dozens of shirtless, muscular men certainly seems to have piqued my girlfriend's interest.
The bands leave the pitch and the referee, dressed in a red-and-white tunic, baggy pantaloons and a plumed hat, gets the game under way. Players from the opposing teams lock arms and start grappling in the dirt. I presume someone has the ball but it's hard to tell because the field is a writhing mass of bodies.
Eventually, a player from the Blues emerges from the scrum and sprints down the left flank, straight into the elbow of an opponent. He goes down with a thump and the crowd goes wild.
The man standing next to me explains that the aim is to score a goal by throwing the ball into the opposing team's net, which stretches the entire width of the field. If it goes in, the team gets a point, if it misses or it's intercepted, the other team gets half a point. The teams switch ends after each goal and there is no half-time during the 50-minute contest. "Like a war," he adds by way of explanation.
Soon the goals start going in and after 30 minutes the Blues lead the Whites 4.5 to 2. A player is stretchered off and now a team of yellow-shirted medics are patrolling the pitch, pouring water over the exhausted men still wrestling on the ground.
This is clearly an outlet for settling old scores. One bandera (Italian flag)-wearing player of the Whites spends the entire game pursuing and ferociously tackling the same weary looking player from the Blues.
When the final whistle blows, the Blues have thrashed the Whites 11.5 to 3. The jubilant team are joined by their prize, a white calf, and they parade proudly around the ground.
The celebrations carry on long into the night, finishing with a spectacular fireworks display by the river.
Ironically, it's the same evening that Italy is knocked out of the World Cup. Perhaps they should have taken a leaf out of Santa Croce's book and employed a more medieval approach.
Where to stay: The stylish, 24-room Relais Santa Croce at Via Ghibellina 87, 50122 Florence, has stunning views of Santa Croce Church.
When to go: Calcio Storico is held in June each year. Next year's dates to be advised.
Tickets for the games cost between €21 and €47 and are available at outlets throughout the city.
Further information: Seeitaliantourism.com.au.
The writer was a guest of Baglioni Hotels and the Italian Tourism Board.