Dating back to the Renaissance, the historic game of “Florentine football” is sometimes considered the ancestor of the modern-day version, however the rules of and the physical contact in the game make it more similar to rugby than to football.
The players in the Renaissance came from the four historic districts into which Florence was divided: Santo Spirito (white), Santa Maria Novella (red), San Giovanni (green), and Santa Croce (blue). Usually scions of the local nobility, the players had to be aged between 18 and 45, and the rather magnificent strip or liveries they wore led this game to also be known as calcio in costume and calcio in livrea. There were 27 players on each side and the fifty-minute games were played on a field covered with sand. The aim was to get the ball into the opposing team’s net. Whilst the rules were not entirely “anything goes”, the game was quite violent and it was not unusual for the match to end in a free-for-all brawl. The winning team received a Chianina heifer (a prized breed of cattle from Val di Chiana).
A number of matches would become famous. in 1491 and 1605, for example. the game was actually played on the frozen surface of the Arno. Then there was the match of 1530, which took place while the city was under siege by Papal forces, showing its defiance by not altering its Carnival plans in spite of the shortage of food. The besieging forces were thus able to watch the match from the hills above the city, though far from entering into the spirit of the event they factually fired a cannonball during the match….. to which the Florentines responded with loud booing.
In 1575 the Florentine merchants in Lyon organised a match in that city – an event that was commemorated during the 1998 French World Cup by a July match between Florence and Lyon. Finally, there is the 1766 match played in Livorno. One of the spectators was the English consul, and it is said that what he saw resulted in the development of the modern game of football in his home country.
Famous players of Florentine football included various members of the Medici family and even three popes: Clement VII, Leo XI and Urban VII.
The game went into decline in the 17th century, and the last known match in pre-modern Florence was played in 1739. Then in 1930, the 400th anniversary of the above-mentioned siege of the city was marked by a resumption of the tradition. Today there is a annual tournament in the moth of June that involves all four historic districts, with two eliminating matches and a final, all played before a crown of 100,000 spectators on a sand-covered Piazza Santa Croce. Unfortunately, on 11 June 2006, the first match of the tournament – between the Whites of Santa Spirito and the Blues of Santa Croce – degenerated into a brawl and had to be interrupted. As a result, the tournaments of 2006 and 2007 were cancelled!!
In Piazza Santa Croce one can still see two traces of the pitch used for the old-style matches of calcio florentino. Dating from the Renaissance, the two markers indicated the ends of the halfway line of the field on which the matches were played. The first, bearing the date 10 February 1565, is a marble disk inlaid into the façade of Palazzo degli Antellesi. The second, directly opposite at number 7 is smaller and divided into four quarters – two red, two white – which symbolize the ball used. A white line was traced on the ground between these two markers and served to divide the pitch into two equal halves occupied by the teams. It was from the centre point of that line that the referee (the pallaio) kicked the ball against one of the wall disks; when it fell back into play, the game commenced.
(Adapted from Secret Tuscany by Carlo Caselli, published by JonGlez)