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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.

CALCIO STORICO

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."

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“I’m a fighter, you know, I’ve done a lot of things in my life, I’ve been around the world twice… I’m not saying this to brag, but to tell you my background," says the 40-year-old. "These days, I’m exhausted, I’m not hungry, I no longer drive, I can’t work anymore, I have restless legs syndrome.” She pauses before adding sadly: “I can’t read anymore either.”

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