Inside the World’s Most Brutal Sporting Event

Once a year, the men of Florence, Italy pay tribute to their city’s patron saint by beating the crap out of each other.

I’m not surprised to see Maurizio Bonfiglio, the 48-year-old legendary midfielder, go barreling down the side of the pitch, punch a guy in the face, kick him in the head, and get thrown out of the match less than five minutes into play. After all, the guy has TOTAL CAOS tattooed across his back, and, as far as I can tell, nobody has ever had the courage to point out the spelling mistake. But what does surprise me is how quickly the other guy—who’s just been pummeled senseless by a human wrecking ball—stands up, dusts himself off, and jabs a fist into the first eye socket that comes within striking range. Or how the Italians in the bleachers to my left and right cheer wildly when, later, another player is nearly beaten unconscious by members of the opposing team.

I’ve seen men fight before—in bars, in hockey, in professional wrestling—but this is different. This is war.

It’s called calcio storico (or “historic soccer”)—a Florentine blood sport dating back to the 16th century, which every June pits four teams in a three-game tournament that’s as heavy on violence as it is light on rules. Played on a 40×80–yard, sand-covered pitch in Florence’s Piazza Santa Croce, calcio combines the chaos of a WWE Royal Rumble, the brutality of MMA, the mechanics of rugby, and the pageantry of a Bible epic. Each 27-man team represents a different district in Florence: Bianchi, Verdi, Azzurri, and Rossi. Games last 50 minutes, with no breaks or substitutions. With few rules to mitigate the violence—everything short of attempted murder pretty much goes—gruesome injuries are common. A player once had his ear bitten off. Another lost a spleen. Nobody is paid. Everybody is hurt.

For an American experiencing calcio for the first time, the bloodthirstiness in the grandstands is as shocking as the carnage on the field. Think Steelers fans are rough? Throw a cow into this Italian crowd and they just might eat it raw. “The screams of the fans raise my adrenaline to the maximum,” says Rodrigue Koumgan Nana, the 6′2″ Cameroon-born halfback for team Bianchi. “But it’s very important to manage that emotion because it can be dangerous for yourself and others.”

Nana is one to talk. During this year’s calcio final—between Bianchi and Verdi—he emerged as his team’s most ruthless hit man. Like an emotionally unstable bull in a china shop, he dismantled Verdi’s defensive line, one crushing body slam at a time, allowing his teammates to maneuver over his victims to score goals. By the time the dust settled, Bianchi was victorious, though you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the crowd who knew the final score.

To the victors go the spoils—in this case, a free steak dinner and bragging rights for a year. It may not be much, but there’s not a player in the Piazza Santa Croce who’d ask for more.