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Game On: 5 Brutal Team Sports That Survived The Ages

Game On: 5 Brutal Team Sports That Survived The Ages
Julie Farrar

Sports are among the world's most compelling forms of entertainment. But they can also be a way for communities to carry on culture and traditions.

Such is the case of calcio storico fiorentino, a centuries-old ball game that was developed — and lives on — in Florence, Italy. Recently, the city's mayor, Dario Nardella, submitted the sport as a candidate for UNESCO intangible cultural heritage status.

In honor of that petition, we decided to offer a quick rundown on the obscure game, along with profiles of four other ancient team sports that continue to be played, though with less blood and gore than perhaps originally intended.


Imagine a sport in which soccer, rugby and street fighting are combined. Now you have the gist of calcio storico. This early form of soccer originated in 16th century Florence and is thought to have derived from the ancient Roman sport of harpastum.

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Santa Croce (blue) vs. Santa Maria Novella (red) Photo: Lorenzo Noccioli

Each year in the lead up to the feast day of St. John the Baptist, Florence's patron saint, teams from the city's four historic neighborhoods compete in 50-minute long matches. With 27 players to a team, the aim is to get the ball into the other team's end zone — by pretty much any means necessary (kicks to the head and sucker-punching are banned, choking and head butting are a go). No substitutions of players are allowed in this brutal game, though no players have died, writes the New York Times in a profile of a recent tournament.

The games were suspended last year, as well as in 2006 and 2007, due to fights breaking out in the crowds. Organizers complained that they couldn't guarantee the safety of spectators. Mayor Dario Nardella reacted by encouraging more locals to participate rather than people coming from abroad to fight in the streets, Corriere Della Serra reported.

Winning means glory for an entire year, and losing is truly tragic, according to Maurizio Matta, trainer of the blue team from the Santa Croce neighborhood. "Nobody is afraid of fighting," he says. "They're only afraid of losing."


Believed to be the world's oldest field game, hurling is an Irish sport that has been played for at least 2,000 years. Featured in folklore and played by heroic mystical figures, there is even a high cross from the 9th century that illustrates David killing a lion with what appears to be a curved stick and ball — the hurley stick would have been more familiar to Irish audiences than a sling.

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Photo: Seaninryan

Hurling is played in most Irish counties, and every year the counties compete over the summer months in the All Ireland Championship, the winner of which receives the MacCarthy Cup. Matches in the Championship series attract huge crowds, with over 70,000 attending the final each September in Dublin's Croke Park stadium.

The sport isn't restricted to just the Emerald Isle. The Irish diaspora has helped spread hurling far and wide. Even the U.S. army even has a team!


Similar to the gentleman's game of polo, Afghanistan's national sport is played on horseback … but instead of hitting a ball, players take whacks at a dead goat (or other animal).

Photo: Ahmad Massoud/Xinhua/ZUMA

Rules can vary, though the aim is to fight off other players and transport the goat into a pre-established circle or goal line. The length of the game can also vary, with some lasting for days.

Photo: Ahmad Massoud/Xinhua/ZUMA

It is thought that the nomadic Turkic-Mongol tribes who traveled west from China and Mongolia between the 10th and 15th centuries brought the game with them. During the Taliban regime's rule, buzkashi was banned in Afghanistan and deemed immoral. But it has since returned to popularity. The sport is similar to Argentine pato (where a duck was used instead of a ball during early games).


Jousting is best-known as a mounted sport from the Middle Ages, though a much older version exists and takes place on water. The jousters stand on platforms built on boats, while their teams row them towards each other, attempting to knock the other into the water.

Photo: Michael Debets/Pacific Press/ZUMA

It all sounds pretty harmless until you factor in that one of the places it was originally played, on the River Nile in Egypt, was teeming with crocodiles.

Photo: Keystone CANADA/Keystone Canada/ZUMA

Bas-reliefs dating from the Ancient Egyptian Empire have been found depicting the sport. There are also references to it in artifacts from Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. But it is in France where the tradition lives on. Sete, in the Languedoc region, celebrated its first tournament during the town's founding in 1666. Nearly 350 years later, an annual water jousting festival is held in the southern city each August, drawing thousands.


Called pitz in Maya or ÅŒllamaliztli in Nahuatl, this ball game resembles volleyball — with some human sacrifice thrown in. The original rules of the game are unknown, though the most common theory is that there were 2-4 players per team, and that players used their hips to strike the ball (made of solid rubber and weighing up to 4 kg) down courts of long alleys with slanted side walls. Players would keep going until one team either failed to return or the ball, or it left the court.

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A game in action Photo: Sputnik

Decapitation has been linked with the sport thanks to Maya art, and it is assumed that captives were sacrificed after losing a rigged game. Some courts do show paintings of ballplayers — often the captain of the losing team — being sacrificed, and there has even been speculation that human heads or skulls were used in place of the ball sometimes …

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A replica court Photo: CC via Worcester Art Museum

Courts of varying sizes have been found as far south as Nicaragua and as far north as what is now the U.S. state of Arizona. The earliest forms of the sport were believed to have begun around 2500 BC. A newer more modern version of the game, renamed ulama, is still played by indigenous groups, and thankfully sacrifice is not one of the traditions continued.

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Tsai Ing-wen, the President of Taiwan

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