A year with the players of one of football’s most violent antecedents
It is a late June Saturday afternoon in Santa Croce square, Florence. For the past week, the sun has been a lonesome presence in the sky, raising the daily temperature to well over 35 degrees Celsius. For the city’s traders, this is good business. Gelato is sold by the bucketload, while the many trattorias are packed with tourists, all sampling the fine Tuscan cuisine and wine. But for the majority of residents in the city’s four districts, the temperature has just added more tension to the climax of their year.
That’s because today is the beginning of the Calcio Storico tournament. Calcio Storico Fiorentino, to give it its full name, is an ancient ball sport that is only played in Florence, a unique mix of football, rugby, boxing and blood sports. Each team comprises 27 men, who fight for space while dressed in Renaissance clothing. All of them play for one of four district teams that represent their church. Rossi (Reds) represents Santa Maria Novella. Verdi (Greens) are from the district of San Giovanni, famous for the cathedral. Santa Croce is home to Azzurri (Blues) while Bianchi (Whites) represent the district from the other side of the Arno, Santo Spirito.
Calcio has been around in some form for around two millennia. Florentine troops used to play the Arpusto – a primitive form of this game – to stay organised and fit for war. The current form of the game feels warlike, being both incredibly violent and also very tactical. Players can do almost anything to bring down an opponent, apart from gang up on single players or strike an opponent from behind. Punching, fly-kicking, round housing, even occasional eye-gouging are all permissible to create or limit space. Once gaps open up, the ball can be carried to gain a caccia (goal) in the narrow nets that run the length of the ends of the pitch.
Everything in Florence is tightly packed, and the same is true of the temporary sand pitch and stands which are constructed to host Calcio in Santa Croce – the burial ground of Michelangelo and Machiavelli. Within it are 6,000 fans who have been present for hours awaiting the arrival of the military procession and the teams.
The procession is late; it usually is. There are 550 extras to get ready in full Renaissance dress, while one or both teams play around with their arrival times to try to gain a psychological advantage.
The procession, a replica of the militia founded by Machiavelli, marches with players from the four teams from the basilica of Santa Maria Novella to Santa Croce. It is an impressive spectacle; soldiers ride on horseback, others carry cannons and guns and there is a flag platoon. It is all set to an ominous military drumbeat which plays relentlessly from the start of the parade to the start of the match.
It’s supposed to take about an hour. Today we are approaching two and it’s created an oppressive air of anxiety in the Florentine heat. Smoke bombs and flares are being lit, while ramshackle firework displays are set off by the ultras of the two districts that are playing today, Rossi and Verdi.
Upon arrival, the procession and teams congregate in the narrow side streets beside the square. It takes a further 45 minutes for them all to march onto the sandy pitch in a specific order. This exacerbates the tension further, something evident in the body language of il calcianti (the players), who are shadowboxing, sprinting and stretching before entering the pitch to an ear-blistering welcome.
The drumbeat is drowned out by fireworks, chanting and the metronomic voice of the PA announcer, who is giving detailed explanations of each battalion and whom they represent. The air smells of a mix of sulphur, leather and tobacco and the players are struggling to breathe as they throw roses to the four sides of the stadium to show their respect to their community.
But by the time everybody has lined up, you can hear a pin drop. A call to arms is chanted to the city by a single voice – that of the director of the military parade. He is swiftly joined by the entirety of the crowd, as well as the spectators who are lucky enough to live in the apartments overlooking the square. Meanwhile, the players and army bow to show subservience to the military director and six Florentine maids.
As a piece of pre-match entertainment, there is no better spectacle than this in world sport. Each match occurs at sundown, when the light becomes less harsh, creating wonderful imagery, especially in a city as beautiful as Florence. It is a cinematographer's wet dream.
Furthermore the spectacle of the game itself is extraordinary. Ridley Scott spent millions on creating his brutal Gladiator scenes. Here it happens right in front of your eyes and with the added bonus of not worrying about a risk assessment for the main actors, who are more than willing to get injured.
We were mainly here to discover the lives of the people who take part in this game – both on and off the pitch. In our interviews over the previous year, we had been told several times that the violence was only a small part of the culture; that really this was about life itself, and that the game was far more tactical than we could ever imagine. It was a point of view that was convincing, and had convinced us.
After the salute to the city the procession clears away in seconds, with the mainly middle-aged and older army suddenly finding a turn of pace unseen over the previous afternoon, leaving just the Verdi and Rossi teams on the pitch. Overlooking it all is a huge statue of Dante.
All matches begin the same way. The ball is thrown into the middle of the pitch by the referees, where the two lines of forwards stand off from each other in a boxing pose. All across the pitch, it was possible to see the teams of Rossi and Verdi creating gangs who could attack; it looked like the tactical battle that had been much promised. 10 seconds later, a Rossi forward roundhouse kicked a Verdi. It knocked him out cold and broke two vertebrae in his neck.
Hardly anyone noticed.
“Florentines are such annoying people. We all believe that we are descendants of Lorenzo de Medici, Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, Donatello. We feel we have an important background.”
Sacha Ciacchi is sitting in a busy bakery in the San Giovanni district. Ciacchi is a key player for Verdi and he is giving chapter and verse about life in the city. “Because we come from the Renaissance era, it’s easy to be arrogant, with the history we lived, but we are spontaneous and genuine.”
This isn’t the sort of statement that usually comes from a footballer, but every player of calcio believes they are a relic and are motivated solely by tradition. Money is not an issue because there isn’t any; everybody plays for free.
Before starting this project, we thought it would take a special type of eccentric to want to do this. So when Ciacchi, a heavy-set bald man, began comparing himself to the iconoclasts of the Renaissance, we felt we had struck gold. It would take the course of a year for our small film crew to appreciate that Ciacchi was not as odd as he sounded and that there was an immeasurable beauty in his pride.
Luciano Artusi is an extremely dignified gentleman. Now in his tenth decade his moustache is always meticulously pruned and waxed and his shirts are ironed crisply every day.
No one knows the sociological history of Florence better than Artusi, and his eyes glint when he speaks of anything Florentine. He was director of the accompanying military parade for 55 years as well as being, among other things, a district judge, a journalist, a chef and a vineyard owner. “In the first dictionary of Italian language, the dictionary of La Crusca, at the word calcio we find ‘typical game of the city of Florence that was named after its way of hitting the ball or with the foot, the kick, the calcio’,” he said.
The most important piece of information that Artusi wants to impart is that Calcio is the most historic sport, older than the far bigger sport known by the same name in Italy. “Calcio Fiorentino gave birth to football,” he said. “Even the English Football Association have admitted this. Today it’s difficult to understand the links because it is always played with both hands and it looks a bit like rugby or American football. But it began with the foot.”
The association isn’t lost on Fifa, who have in the past had teams and parades from Calcio as part of opening ceremonies at World Cups; the parade will also feature in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Artusi is correct. The first few times watching the sport in its current form it is difficult to associate it with football. “It started with the Romans when they founded Florentia in 59 BCE,” Artusi said. “They used to play arpasto. That was taken from the Greeks who used to play spheromachia. They played with their feet. The Florentines appropriated it and codified it to what we see today. It’s a tradition with 2,000 years of history.”
The biggest changes in how the game was played came after a gap of nearly 200 years from the mid-18th century, when interest in the game faded. It’s assumed this was connected to the waning influence of the Medici, who were big supporters of the game, although no one is really sure. While it was sometimes played in the suburbs, it wouldn’t be until 1930 that Calcio was resurrected.
Anyone who has visited the Stadio Olimpico in Rome will know that Benito Mussolini loved pomp and ceremony, given its collection of athletic sculptures. They were all commissioned under Il Duce as part of his obsession with physical fitness. It was Mussolini who had a big hand in bringing Calcio Storico back to Florence, celebrating it officially as a game of Italy. Many of the players came from the local football teams at the time, while the game itself had a significant influence on the Fiorentina side that had just been created. That link with Fiorentina remains in the use of the four colours of the districts for La Viola’s away kits.
“When it resumed,” Artusi said, “it missed two centuries of oral tradition passed on from father to son. So they resumed it from the papers, the documents, but it was a bit thin.”
The tradition quickly became popular again, and has passed on through familial and social lines ever since. “Those who have been part of Calcio Storico carry the flame for it,” said Artusi. “The ball is passed from father to son. My father was part of the tradition and so is my son.”
Like Artusi, Uncle Angelino is in his later years. Despite two failing legs, he manages to walk the half mile to the tobacconist’s owned by Simone Mafara, a prominent forward for Azzurri. There, Angelino is treated like family by the staff and customers of the community of Santa Croce, most of whom are calcianti. Most days he is happy to sit with a cappuccino listening to the trials and tribulations of lives much younger than his, but on occasion he shares the generosity of a bottle or two of prosecco, courtesy of the players.
Today, it is the turn of Mafara and his teammate Andrea Mattaloni, a road cleaner, whom we had filmed playing most of the previous year’s semi-final despite suffering a snapped knee ligament. “It was the first five minutes. I tried to kick a Rossi calciante, and my knee collapsed. They took me away on a stretcher and told me my cruciate ligament was torn.”
The differences between the two men are stark. Mattaloni is a slim, agile, good-looking man in his mid-30s. Mafara is a beast. He is at least 18 stone, complete with an unkempt beard and adorned with tattoos that represent the game. He is also 20 years Andrea’s senior, and very forthright. “I told him not to leave, that he must remain on the field.”
It was an order that was followed. “You have a million reasons for not leaving,” Mafara said. “First of all, you’re waiting for the match all year, then you are honoured to wear the costume. The opposition can kill you, you can faint, or they break both your legs so you can’t play any more or you can resist like I did.”
Mafara too has seen his fair share of injuries. “A few years ago, I was fly-kicked on the hip by a Bianchi player,” he said. “I had two broken ribs and I spent two days pissing blood. You feel it, but the adrenaline, the tension, the willingness to win because you’re there to win – these things overwhelm the pain.”
While the days of Mafara being a macho poster-boy have long since gone, he is a respected voice within the community. “To me the victory is that the following day everyone gets back to real life,” he said. “Andrea carries away road signs, I go to my coffee bar, someone’s a baker, someone’s a lawyer – we all come back to normality. But that day you feel like a badass.
“Playing in Piazza Santa Croce it’s like playing at the Maracanã. You are shirtless in a square and there are 6,000 people who look at you, who offend you, love you, hate you, worship you. It isn’t for everyone. Calcio Storico isn’t 54 mad people that fight, there’s a story behind it all.”In the two hours we were at Mafara’s shop, several Azzurri popped in to buy cigarettes and a coffee for themselves and Angelino. Everyone was greeted with a hug and a kiss and a cutting remark or two from Mafara’s position of authority behind the counter.
Rossi’s training base is a little further out of town, in a poorer area called Isolotto. Their most recognisable player is Riccardo Lo Bue, a powerhouse of a forward who is all muscle and tattoo. His image is used on tournament marketing, as well as by Fiorentina when they promote their away shirts. “I was born in Calcio,” he said. “When Rossi started training here in Isolotto, I used to come with my bicycle and watch them. I was so small and I saw these giants and I loved them because they represented my district. So for me it was fundamental to be able to wear that red costume and represent my area.”
We first met him after a training session in February, four months before the tournament. “Training is constant, five days a week. I prioritised my body for myself and for this game, because you need a physical structure to play 50 minutes.”
He proudly starts showing us his Instagram profile. On it is a before-and-after example of the effect of his training regime. The transformation is impressive. “The first year I played I was 19, I weighed almost 154 pounds. I was thin, maybe I hadn’t a body for Calcio. Then through the years with the gym and all the training I’m now almost 220 pounds, all of which is muscle.”
At the time of that first interview, Rossi hadn’t won a tournament since 2008. It was Riccardo’s only tournament victory in his 15-year career. Defeat is as brutal as the game itself. “It’s a passion, it's revenge, because I believe in this group and that the victory is near and stopping would be worse than keeping on,” he said.
Massi, Riccardo’s teammate, agrees: “I live this thing 100%, I’m here every day, I talk with my teammates, always about Calcio. It’s a bit stressful, and besides you have your family, so you arrive at the end of June exhausted. Then you relax and think it’s over. But it’s just a second. Because the day after you already miss it!”
The same argument was put forward by calcianti of all four colours. For them, this is a life, not a lifestyle. Each team welcomed us in with open arms. They showed us their houses and their workplaces. The training sessions are attended by friends, families and spectators. Most weeks, there is a big communal meal for players and their families. As many of the calcianti are chefs and restaurant owners themselves, the food is unsurprisingly excellent and the beer and wine flows freely.
One of those restaurant owners is Fabrizio Valleri, half-back for Bianchi and patron of Trattoria I’Raddi. As in many Florentine hostelries, the must-have dish is bistecca alla fiorentina. Taken from a local Chianina cow, Florentine steak is salted and shared between two people only part-cooked. You chargrill the rest yourself, with a bit of lemon and some greens. It’s best served with copious amounts of chianti. Like most traditions in Florence, it has a link to the game. A Chianina cow forms a key part of the military parade for each match. It is led through the city, and lines up on the pitch for the call of arms to Florence, somewhere between the Florentine army and an actor playing Lorenzo de Medici. It is then presented to the winners of the tournament as a trophy, before being slaughtered and eaten by the team.
Valleri’s restaurant is filled with Calcio memorabilia, paintings and sculptures. Next door is an artist's studio, where we meet Fabrizio, who is having a sculpture made of himself. “Tourists love it,” he said. “Apart from the Japanese, they run away. As for the violence – well, there is violence on TV. Should we stop that as well?”
Valleri has a reputation for being a bit of a joker, and is in an exceptionally playful mood. On the pitch, he is a nimble and quick player in the back line, regularly scoring caccias. Off it, he is clearly an intelligent man who uses his wit and humour to gain respect and foster a team spirit. “We all have our lives in the time that we have to live in,” he said. “Everyone always talks about Florence and the Renaissance, and how wonderful it was. But for me, I would have preferred to live in the high middle ages. You could make your mark a bit easier in those times. There was less competition.”
The game became the major pastime of the Florentine nobility just before the Renaissance, but it really established itself under the Medici. Lorenzo il Magnifico, the most powerful state ruler in Italy, was a keen player. Donatello, Michelangelo and Machiavelli were all players, while three popes happily competed: Clement VII, Leo XI and Urban VII. It’s a cast list that is never forgotten by those involved, including Mafara. “When you get in and wear this costume, walk in the streets, you realise the importance you give the city, the importance that this has in Italy, and the world,” he said. “Lorenzo de Medici played here. People who built the history of Italian culture played here. We don’t realise what we have.”
Several sculptures exist that depict a Calcio breakdown while many of Michelangelo’s subjects were players. And Michelangelo played a key role in the events that cemented the game in the identity of the city – the siege of Florence in 1530.
The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was the greatest emperor the world had ever seen, the first of whom it could be said that the sun never set on his domain, which stretched from South America to northern Germany. He controlled the Aragonese kingdoms of Naples, Sicily and Sardinia as well as several states in northern Italy. But he did not possess Milan, Rome or Florence, which in 1526 formed the League of Cognac with France, Genoa and some others to oppose him.
With vastly superior resources, Charles forced Rome into submission, a great humiliation for Pope Clement VII, a former ruler of Florence and a Calcio player who had been born Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici. He had fallen out of favour in his home city and been ousted in 1527, in part because of his obsession with becoming pope and in part because of his inability to play the political game. A treaty was signed between Clement and Charles as a result of which the three cities would come under the control of the Empire and the Medici would return to Florence, once it was retaken.
After the fall of Venice, Florence stood alone. Michelangelo played a role in strengthening the city’s fortifications before it was besieged in October 1529. In a gesture of defiance, the Florentine armies, who were still organised on the lines conceived by the recently deceased Machiavelli, decided to parade in front of Charles’s army. They then took part in a game of Calcio in front of the enemy to demonstrate they were not afraid. In August 1530, the city fell and the Medici were restored to power.
Calcio commemorates that siege. It is not just a tournament. The city likes to call it a historical reenactment rather than a sport. It also exists to remind the Florentine people that they should never give up their identity as a free people who want to criticise and be creative.
There are several military marches throughout the year to remember the siege, the tournament in June and also a game between Calcio legends on February 17, the anniversary of that match.
“My fucking God, you were shit.”
Gianluca Lapi rips into a 60-year-old teammate. Lapi is a demi-god in Florence who is widely recognised as the Maradona of the sport. In his pomp he was a mix of fierce forward and a player who could glide through the scrummage, a key part of a great Verdi side. Nearly 60, he has the build of a heavyweight boxer. He retired in the early 2010s to allow a new generation of calcianti through and he still takes part in the ceremonial game with all the enthusiasm of his past.
The ceremonial game is far less violent than the main event. As a spectator it’s easier to grasp the tactics. The ball is thrown into the middle to start, with one side gaining possession. The forwards work much like they do in American football. They block each other’s runs, creating space to attack in, while the defending side seeks to get to the danger players first and bring them down. If you have been taken down by an opponent, both players remain out of the game. As in the real game, no substitutions are allowed – so as players tire or are sent off, more space appears on the pitch.
Over the years more rules have been added to the game – although there remain only three main ones. These have been interpreted differently by different teams and different referees. “When I debuted in 1980 Calcio storico was really, really different,” Lapi said. There weren’t rules like there are today. The rules were given by the man on the field and you behaved. You went well, you were precise, you could fight loyally with everyone and you were respected without problems.”
Viewing footage of Calcio from the 80s shows a slightly different reality. Think of a giant game of British bulldog, but with large groups of players pummelling others straight into hospital. “The 80s and 90s were the most violent years of Calcio,” said Gianni Bertoli, captain of Verdi, and Lapi's teammate for his entire career. “The battles between Verdi and Rossi were crazy. Some of us wrote wills before the game.”
Lapi and Bertoli were a formidable partnership throughout this time, even if Verdi only won the title once, in 1996. Lapi’s favourite memory of Bertoli came when they were within minutes of winning a final. He turned around to see Gianni vigorously eating up an opponent. Aware that a rare victory was in their sights Lapi called for Gianni to “use his head” to secure the victory. He duly took the instruction literally, earning himself an expulsion from the match and costing Verdi the tournament.
Despite the romance and the rose-tinted stories, Calcio was in its most controversial period. But their time in the limelight did not end well. “Dare I say it, many of the players were criminals,” Bertoli said, almost embarrassed. It led to a violent atmosphere around the entire tradition. It all came to a head in 2005 when the entire Verdi team was cited for civil and criminal violence, after a Bianchi player had complained of his injuries, inflicted by Bertoli, to the local police. The case went to court, with all 27 players and accompanying coaches in the dock.
With careers to protect, including Bertoli’s own as a private investigator, each player accepted playing bans in lieu of criminal sentencing. With a whole team unable to play, the tournament was cancelled. “In that one court case, this tradition that goes back to the 1400s could have been wiped out forever,” said Bertoli “It wasn’t even an extraordinary action on the pitch. Far worse happens today. This one person threatened everything.”
It is clearly a period of shame for the calcianti, as well as the organisers of the tournament.
As we sought agreement to film with each team, they all sought to ensure we would not do a hatchet job on them and focus on the violence. Other films had been made on the tournament, but had often shown brutality without any context. Sacha Ciacchi had been clear on this back in the bakery. “Some people just say we are violent,” he said, “and that we are all criminals. But it isn’t true. This is our passion, our community. And passion in life is everything.”
It took the dedication of key Florentines to get the show back on the road. In came the new rules and 60 troublesome calcianti were banned. It has brought massive change to the sport – both in playing style and popularity.
With the advent of Youtube and social networking, knowledge of the game started to spread. This has generally been welcomed, but it has its drawbacks. Apart from a lot of the attention focusing on the violence, there is a perceived issue of celebrity in a community sport. “It seems to me that the entire world has changed,” said Lapi. “All the values are out of whack. I mean, before the hero in the sport was the hero of the sport, now the hero has become something different, like they are chasing fame.”
This is a game that exists in an alternative world to normal sport. The entire tradition is refreshingly free of corporate influence on any level. When the tournament re-started in 2011, a new batch of players took to the sand at Santa Croce. As has always been the way here, many were the sons and family members of legends past.
For Verdi, the entire team would be formed of these youngsters. For a while, they performed terribly. They needed the experience of Bertoli, their former leader. “I promised myself that I’d never go back, with the pain that I felt,” he said. “I hid when I went to watch the matches and I cried because I wanted to be near the team. Then, when this wonderful group looked for me, they told me they needed me and… I left all of my convictions behind.”
Gianni’s role as captain is a paternal one, directing the play on pitch, telling players where to run and whom to shut down. Despite the influence of Lapi and Bertoli, Verdi have struggled to make much of a mark on the tournament. The other teams have retained a number of older heads and have been able to develop organically.
The break did, though, lead to a power shift. Azzurri had been largely dominant for nearly 40 years but the restart saw a resurgent Bianchi team win the majority of tournaments. Azzurri had long held a reputation for playing dirty but found themselves playing a fitter, slicker version of themselves. Many of Azzurri’s players had also been subject to the ban. That clash has created a cross-city rivalry that would slowly come to dominate our time in the city.
Florence is a city that changes temperament with the temperature. In the hot summer, the city is full of tourists. Autumn comes as a relief. The tourists fade away and the city becomes far more tranquil. For the calcianti, it is the beginning of hibernation. Most of our initial filming took place during this period, and with it came more introspection.
By the time spring arrived, tensions had begun to rise. Instead of reflecting on the identity of the game to the city, players became obsessed with the importance of the game to their group or to themselves.
Easter Sunday is a major date in the Calcio calendar. It’s when the semi-final draw takes place. The army parades through the streets of the city, only this time it is led by four Chianina cows who pull an 11-foot chariot or brindellone. This high priest of Florence then sets fire to a paper dove, which flies the length of the Duomo to set light to the brindellone, which then explodes with fireworks.
The draw is conducted in front of the captains of the teams, four antique eggs pulled out of a velvet bag. In the days beforehand, everyone had seemed certain that Azzurri against Bianchi could not happen. That had been the final the previous year and had been considered a classic. Bianchi had dominated, taking a 5-1 lead. But with the punishing heat taking its toll on the players, Azzurri staged an incredible fight back, losing by half a caccia. (Half points are awarded to the defending team if a caccia attempt goes over the net and to the attacking team if an attempt goes over via a deflection.)
Azzurri wanted their title back. Losing by half a point hurts. To a man, they were convinced that Bianchi had benefited over the years from favouritism, even suggesting that they had paid off the referees. “We are a real team, while their team is full of new entries, new fighters, professionals,” said Dorjan Zgura, a goalkeeper for Azzurri. “We are from the street. I can tell you that they think they have won, but the tournament was stopped one year and we assembled the team three days before playing the first match, and we played until the end. Without even training! And the tournament that year was stopped.
“The same thing happened the year after, because one Bianchi player wouldn’t leave the pitch after being expelled. But the match ended with the score 2-1 for Bianchi but I don’t think they really won.”
Grudges in Calcio are part of the narrative, and tend to be long-held. Zgura is charming. He is very quick to make a joke and is very welcoming, but perhaps his own chaotic life is symbolic of Calcio itself. He was once a successful restaurateur, but lost his business after an altercation with his brother, who co-owned it.
In this case, an altercation meant Dorjan laying seven shades of shit into his sibling, after he was perceived to not be pulling his weight in the kitchen, while also taking money for nights out.
Dorjan also lost contact with the rest of his family. Despite the problems in his personal life, nothing tops his hatred of Bianchi. “What makes me think that they have no idea of the value of a victory is the fact that, for the whole year, they brag about that ‘match’ they have won like that, and I can’t stand it,” he said. “These are the reasons why you come to hate them and have so much resentment because they are nothing… they are nothing. I respect everyone and I am friendly with everyone, but when it’s about a competition, I want to win. Even if there’s a pissing contest I want to win, I don’t care.”
Bianchi were drawn against Azzurri.
There are just under three months between the Easter draw and the first game at the beginning of June. Within that window, there are further traditions. Every team hosts a team dinner at their square. It is an opulent affair, with a full restaurant being set up outside the major churches of Florence, including the Duomo and Santa Croce.
During the day, new calcianti are sworn into the game and community by the high priests of the churches, while in the evening a multi-course meal is served alongside plenty of wine.
June arrived and Florence was at boiling point. Tourists were back in force, the leather markets were doing brisk business alongside the traffic wardens. As the temperature rose, so did the intensity of training. It was judgement time for all the players. This was the week that the teams were picked and tactics fine-tuned. Most of the players we had filmed with had been selected as key part of their teams – apart from Azzurri, where none of them made the cut.
Mafara was serving a year's suspension having been sent off in the previous year’s final while Dorjan was rested for the semi-final. He was a goalkeeper – in calcio, the last line of defence, but also a back who could roam forward when required. It was decided he was not needed for this battle. Instead, Azzurri were going to fill the team with fighters in the forward line. No-one would really say why, although Monica, Dorjan’s wife, did let slip that some of those who had been banned in 2011 would be recalled. Dorjan was naturally upset at missing out, but said that he wanted his teammates to “punish” their opponents and show no mercy. “If one of my teammates gets a Bianchi head, I want him to beat it up.”
Meanwhile over at Santo Spirito, headquarters for Bianchi, the mood was dismissive.
“They are always talking shit,” said Rodrigue Nana, one of Bianchi’s star players. He’s from Cameroon and is a hugely physical presence. He’s also one of the few black players to take part. We had filmed with him through the year, but now he was adopting a far more aggressive manner. “Azzurri want to fight but we don’t give a damn,” he said. “Every year. Every year they say they’re going to beat us up, to send us to the hospital. By now there’s a fixed rivalry between us, so there’s more pressure. It’s like the tournament is ours or theirs.”
Conversations within the other camps were also tense, but far more focused on team performance. Verdi’s mission was to keep clear heads and not let the emotion of the game overwhelm them. Both were happy that Azzurri and Bianchi were playing each other. “It will be war,” said Bertoli. “Whoever gets out of that alive will be so battered and bruised – it’s an opportunity for everybody else.”
In Isolotto, Riccardo and Massi had butterflies a few days before the game. Lo Bue hosted lunch with his father in his small flat on the Wednesday, eating four chicken breasts, eggs and a small salad. In the hour we were there, he didn’t say very much, and what he did say was largely to express irritation at his father's consistent pleas to stop playing.
While we were welcomed in to see training, no-one really wanted to speak out in fear of not being picked or in case our presence somehow prejudiced their chances.
When semi-final weekend finally arrived, it was a relief for everybody.
The Rossi v Verdi match had got off to a flying start with fights all over the pitch. It was the young bucks of Verdi who took an early advantage thanks to a wonderful free flowing caccia by Giovanni Prezioso. It was a classic Calcio move during which the Verdi forwards had brought their Rossi opponents to the ground via fighting or rugby tackles. Once down, the players stop fighting – remaining in a rather tranquil judo hold position. Gianni then sent calcianti up the left flank, shielding the ball. By drawing Rossi to that side of the pitch, an overload opportunity opened up on the right which was duly exploited.
It would be a brief moment of joy for Verdi, because afterwards they were pummelled into submission. Within 20 minutes, they had had three players hospitalised. It’s disconcerting to see players suffer serious harm. In one case, a young Verdi received a forearm to his face at such speed that time seemed to slow down, silencing the crowd. Mostly though, the fights that did occur were fair and tactical, and those who seemed to perform best were those who had a rugby background and were used to avoiding contact.
Suffering such a numerical disadvantage so early on ended any hopes Verdi had of winning. Rossi could pick off their opponents without over exerting themselves. Massi scored a hat-trick in an 11-4 victory. The Rossi celebrations went on into the night in Isolotto, amid a great sense of relief at reaching their first final in more than half a decade.
Most of the team were blind drunk by midnight; but Riccardo and Massi stayed slightly aside, content to watch the younger players. “After years of shit on our face, it is nice to taste victory,” said Riccardo. “We had a lot of debutants today and they all stepped up.”
Most calcianti agreed that compared to the previous season’s final, this felt like a damp squib. Not that Rossi minded – not only had they won, but they had saved some energy ahead of the final against the winner of Bianchi and Azzurri.
Nothing much changes about the structure of game day, bar the weather. Yet just 24 hours after the beginning of the procession on Saturday, everything seemed to be different. The narrative between Azzurri and Bianchi had been set some months ago, but the rumours going around the city about the Azzurri tactics had just added more fuel to the fire. Police had to break up several fights between warring fans on the day while the stadium was packed even earlier than usual and was even noisier.
Dorjan, still smarting from not being selected, had agreed to come and watch with us from our main filming gantry in a balcony overlooking the square – so long as we provided him with Aperol Spritz and roll ups.
The game started in haste. Azzurri’s tactics of loading the forward line were working well and they dominated the early match-ups in the middle of the pitch, taking the lead very early on, scoring from a rapid counter-attack. The relentless nature of the game didn't let up, with several fights breaking out.
It was Dorjan who alerted us that Azzurri had had a man sent off. “It’s a fucking fix,” he shouted while swivelling his cocktail glass. To our eyes, nothing looked untoward about Andrea Tarchiani’s expulsion when we reviewed the footage; he went because he tackled and punched from behind. That is against the rules, but there is a huge amount that isn’t picked up in this game and goes without punishment. This formed much of the beef that they had with Bianchi: why did they get away with transgressions more than Azzurri? But it probably didn’t help Tarchiani’s case that he continued hitting his opponent on the floor after the event.
Dismissals are common in Calcio, with several occurring each game. While it obviously affects the flow of the game, it’s perfectly possible to run out winners with fewer players if a team plays the situation correctly. And that’s what Azzurri were doing 20 minutes into the game, going 3-0 up even after their second dismissal.
But too much testosterone causes a lot of problems. Having bought into the narrative of being treated unfairly, Azzurri went too far. When an attack broke down, Pietro Cappelli, an Azzurri flanker, tried to wrestle the ball out of the mess, but was grappled and pulled. He didn’t know that the person pulling him was a referee, whom he pushed over. Cappelli refused to leave the field after being sent off, instead fly kicking an opponent in the next passage of play, before being forcibly taken off.
This did not go down well. Soon there were arguments across the field. A referee took the ball temporarily to stop the game, at which Azzurri completely and utterly lost it. Lorenzo Salu was the first referee to be hit. He took a kick to the shin, while a second referee was punched from behind, the follow-up bundle on him leading to an all-out brawl.
“This isn’t Calcio Storico… it is the Wild West,” said the head of Calcio Storico, Michele Pierluigi, a day after the event. “Bianchi against Azzurri is always a war, but it is a fair war. We have tried so hard to stop these situations.”
The council and match organisers knew that this was bad. Usually it is hard to get word of the game outside Tuscany, but news of the fight had made headlines around the world. It hadn’t helped that the riot police had been sent in to separate the teams.
During all of this Dorjan was providing commentary, demanding that his colleagues “beat them all up” which extended to the referees, the council itself. Mafara had had enough by this point and had got involved on the pitch to try to calm things down. It was ineffective. Within five minutes he was starting arguments.
In a brief moment of calm, Zgura pointed out that this was all the evidence that was needed for Azzurri about how unfairly they had been treated. The blood on the face of the referees on the pitch offered up a different story.
The match was abandoned and the continuation of that year’s tournament placed in doubt. Off the record, many were worried for the future of the sport itself. Most were upset that after seven years hard work resurrecting Calcio, it would be too damaging a look for a proud city.
To their credit, and possibly because they had to, Azzurri went on a charm offensive. They hosted press conferences and cooperated with investigations into what had occurred.
Back at Mafara’s cafe, Pietro Cappelli decided he wanted to conduct an interview with us for the first time, accompanied by his teammate Luigi Ferraro. Gianluca Lapi popped in for a coffee. “Pietro is young,” he said. “He will learn.” Worse had happened in the 90s, in his view. Uncle Angelino was there as well, this time tipsy on nearly a litre of prosecco that was poured into his glass by a buoyant Azzurri team.
Cappelli made his case. Why would they actively want to beat up the referees? They were 3-0 up! He was sorry for hitting out, but he really didn’t feel that he had done that much wrong in comparison to what had followed. Looking back at the footage it is hard to disagree with him; he had no idea that he was pushing a referee.
Ferraro said that the rules are prohibitive. Have them, but use common sense rather than trying to apply them literally, otherwise you kill the spirit of the sport.
Across the Arno, Rodrique Nana was having none of it. “I’m sick off their shit. If there are no rules, it’s just 27 people against 27 people. And it will kill us. In MMA there are rules. If they want to play this way, let us know and we meet in a garage and they will fight.”
All three other teams had met up for a beer after the game, and all had agreed that they can’t go back to the old ways. “Verdi lost three people early on in their game,” said Rodrigue, “but they carried on right to the end, knowing they would lose.”
It took a few days to decide that the final should be played between Rossi and Bianchi, who proceeded via forfeit.
There was a lot riding on this game. Rossi were desperate for a victory but had suffered severe injuries in the first match. Riccardo’s right thigh muscle had been torn away from the bone, but his presence was desperately needed to guide the younger players.
Bianchi knew their involvement in the semi-final would mean they would take a certain amount of the blame. Ultimately there are no clean Calcio games. “They will be unsure whether their tactics actually work,” Massi said. “Let’s face it, they were losing when it all went wrong.”
In the two-week break between the semis and the final, things did seem to calm down somewhat, as if a boil had been burst. There was natural tension within the Bianchi and Rossi camps, but across the rest of the calcianti and supporting characters it felt as though there had been a general acceptance that the event had been coming and, crucially, had happened. Above all, the city itself needed a clean, beautiful example of the game to show to the world, now that it was looking in. It was to get it.
This final went further than the previous year’s classic. Perhaps because there was no hatred between the two teams, the game seemed to flow more fluidly. The tactical battle we had been promised all year was in full display with only a handful of expulsions and major injuries. Looking over the pitch, it was possible to see that, just as in football, defensive and attacking lines are really important as is the press, while players like Massi,who operate between the lines, can be devastating.
Despite Rossi taking an early advantage, Bianchi stormed into 5-2 lead. But match fitness played its part. Slowly, Rossi started to gain a foothold before taking a half-point lead in the final minute.
Perhaps they were excited by their remarkable comeback, perhaps they were naive, but they lost the game. The winning caccia was a lucky last-gasp lob launched from near the halfway line as the final seconds ticked away. Miraculously the ball went in the net rather than over it, and Bianchi won by six points to five and a half.
Post-match the scenes were of a battle well-fought. Players from both sides were strewn in the bloody sand. Many of them were crying, including Riccardo, whose 17-stone frame was a weeping mess in front of the Rossi fans. Massi sat in an inconsolable slouch, taking timid tokes of his roll-up and ignoring the world around him.
We hosted the first screening of our film in the Uffizi gallery last year. It had taken two years to pull the project together to see how the next iteration of the tournament would turn out. The screening happened just after the final, so while most turned up, likeable faces such as Valleri could not be there as they were in intensive care (with broken ribs and a punctured lung, in his case).
There is no getting away from the violence and the behaviour of some of the main protagonists. Calcio is not for everyone. It is violent and it does attract unsavoury characters. But those who care, care passionately. They buy into and promote a little-told history of one of the most important intellectual and creative eras in world history, while also continuing the Florentine condition of conflict and argument. The game itself has had an influence on many other games, including football.