CALCIO STORICO IN Florence is one of those unique Italian events that is only rivalled by Il Palio in Siena. It’s like a mixture of soccer, rugby and attempted murder. Many would agree that it is the most dangerous sport on Earth.
It’s an ancient game fiercely contested between the four districts of Florence: Santa Croce (Azzurri), Santa Maria Novella (Rossi), Santo Spirito (Bianchi) and San Giovanni (Verdi). There are 27 players on each team. They receive no money, train all year and compete for just the honour and glory. The final is held on 24 June (St John’s Day) every year at Piazza Santa Croce.
Sports photography has always appealed to me but only on my terms. The thoughts of sitting behind a goal on a mucky rainy Irish day in the depths of winter trying to get a shot of a school camogie quarter final never baked my noodle.
Hence, I was never cut out for it and it’s a young man’s occupation. Those guys are heroes.
But Calcio Storico is something I had to see for myself. Endless emails, lots of favours and a hard neck. I work on getting the essential camera position for almost two months and just in the nick of time receive permission from the Council in Florence to attend Calcio Storico as an official photographer.
I’m feeling very privileged and sitting on the plane to Pisa I’m contemplating my next few days, striking off another wish from my photographic bucket list. Traveling alone can be both exhilarating and liberating. Time to reflect, time to be in the present, time to work at my own pace.
Friday, the day before the first semi-final. I call to the press office at the magnificent Palazzo Vecchio to receive my pass and the drama begins. The official tells me I’ll have to be in the crowd with the journalists and not at pitchside.
They tell me they can only allocate 10 spots to photographers and in a heated moment I say “Make it 11!” He says he’ll “talk to his boss” and “see what I can do” and he’ll contact me tomorrow. He gives me his mobile number.
I’m speaking English but waving my arms and gesturing like an Italian just to get my point across. I leave the town hall feeling dejected and cheated. I’ll just have to wait and see. I don’t sleep well that evening.
Saturday, the first semi final. My contact in the press office calls me and tells me to be at the school beside Santa Croce at noon to get my official vest. I’m the only non-Italian photographer. There’s the usual drama because the vests haven’t arrived but they give us wristbands instead. Eureka, I’m official. We will receive the Press vests tomorrow at 11am prior to the procession for the second semi-final. Nothing is ever straightforward here. It’s almost an official chaos.
Happily I meet one of the more friendly photographers. Gianni asks me if I need some help in understanding the mayhem. I make a new friend and he becomes my go-to translator and adviser. I hope to repay his kindness some day. He tells me to meet him at the beginning of the procession at Piazza Santa Novella at 2pm.
The piazza in packed with people in ancient garb and colour. It takes two hours to reach Santa Croce. Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli are just three of the greats buried at Santa Croce basilica whilst on the outside a huge sculpture of Dante oversees the battle below. The audience is then treated to an elaborate ceremony as the cavalcade enter the arena.
Finally, the teams are introduced to the fray. They’re on edge and psyching themselves up. Some slap others firmly on the face to prep them for war. The crowd go wild and slowly the cavalcade exit the field of combat. I’m rushing around shooting as much as I can before I hear someone whistle and I’m suddenly the only non-player on the pitch.
It’s showtime. I jump over the cushioned barrier and choose a position where the sun will largely backlight the players for the entire game. It’s impossible to keep up as there’s brawls going on everywhere. The first thing that strikes me is that it’s a lot more tactical than I thought and the fighting off the ball is essential to make a pathway for the attacking player.
Medics prowl the sand looking for those who need temporary attention. Some require stretchers. I’m struggling to anticipate the plays and resign myself to use today’s adventure as a rehearsal for tomorrow. Fifty minutes later and I’m over the hoarding to grab the aftermath. What a rush. I leave on a high and already excited to return more educated for tomorrow’s game.
Random drug testing is now taken very seriously I’m told. A few years back they called out the names after a game to be tested. One guy received a phone call shortly after stating that he was pregnant or more likely, his girlfriend was.
Sunday, second semi-final. Today the Bianchi play the Verde. They are segregated at either end of the arena. The stench of smoke flares momentarily fill the air and I can barely see the fans at either end. They’re baying for blood. The sound of flesh beating flesh resembles a butcher’s hand slapping a side of beef. Two guys clash right beside me and I have to pull back from the cushioned barrier to avoid getting mashed.
The final whistle sounds and Verde win 9 and a half to 5. I jump the barrier to capture the blood, sweat, tears and joy of the gladiators. I leave the piazza with my heart still thumping from the events I have been privileged to witness. A table for one and a well deserved glass of Brunello di Montalcino awaits.