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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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!