There’s an old joke: ‘Last night I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.’ The joke succinctly makes two separate points about accepted levels of violence in the sport itself, as well as the schadenfreude that many of us feel. Whether we admit it or not, we’d be disappointed if the night passed without some kind of escalating altercation.
How old is the joke? Probably not 500 years, the rough age of Calcio Florentino (Florentine football), a sport with so much history it’s officially called Calcio Storico (historical football). As the name implies, it’s soccer as it was played in the 16th Century: with all hands, feet and heads doing just about anything to get to the goal. For all of the Renaissance pageantry that accompanies it, calcio is a particularly brutal game, perhaps the single most violent team sport on the planet.
“Too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game.” — Henry III of France
Apart from hockey, lacrosse and basketball, most of the other contenders for Most Violent Team Sport — rugby, football (soccer), American football and Australian Rules football — are all direct descendants of calcio. The mere fact that these are all refined and genteel descendants by comparison should give you an idea of how brutal the original game must be.
The main difference between calcio and these others is what’s allowed: punching, kicking, head-butting and choking. In any other team sport, any of these acts will earn you at least a foul, a trip to the penalty box, a suspension or even legal trouble back in the real world. In calcio, however, players actively draw from mixed martial arts and bare-knuckle brawling during the game — not to mention even less chivalrous tactics such as throwing sand into your opponents’’ eyes. You won’t get away with punching a player when his back is turned, or kicking him in the head, but with no timeouts, disqualifications or foul shots, it’s hard to see how violating these rules would hurt your team’s chances. Most likely, the only thing that keeps players from going this far is the threat of reprisal by players or officials, in which case being barred from playing the sport may be the preferable option.
In other words, it might be more dangerous to play or watch basketball at Auburn Hills or soccer in Liverpool, but at least the refs are officially instructed to stop the game when things get nasty. Hockey is more of a grey area, in that fighting is to a certain extent permitted on the ice; the official Rule 46 is largely ignored in favor of The Code — an unwritten mutual understanding between NHL refs, players and coaches that makes fighting not simply permitted in some cases, but explicitly a part of each team’s strategy.
And the Men Who Love It
Professional calcio players are, unsurprisingly, a uniquely tough bunch. Speed and agility is (probably) a plus, but the main requirement for the sport is the ability to take and deal extreme physical punishment. The players are typically built more like boxers than ruggers, and there’s a noticeable lack of anything like padding or helmets (or even shirts).
Just imagine pro football (the American kind) played without its extensive modern armor, by guys who aren’t worried about a future in show business, and who are expected and encouraged to bar-brawl their way to every touchdown. A league full of James Harrisons, Jack Lamberts and Jack Tatums. Much of the time, the players seem to be completely ignoring the ball’s whereabouts — they’re too busy trying to debilitate each other.
Without putting too fine a point on it, calcio players have traditionally been guys who wouldn’t necessarily be welcomed in any other sport. Officials imposed more strict rules in 2008, including banning players with criminal records, or who were flagged for being too violent in previous seasons. Along with a rule that prevented guys over 40 from playing, these new rules reportedly cost the league nearly half their players.
The National Calcio League?
Sports fans in the U.S. are generally tolerant of if not eager for a certain amount of violence on the court. Bringing calcio to the land of NASCAR and UFC sounds reasonable, and certainly hockey is a role-model for team sports. So why will we never see American calcio?
Unless you can score tickets to Florence for one of the handful of calcio matches, you probably won’t ever have the unique pleasure of watching it live. Currently, the sport is largely a Florentine phenomenon — a city half the size of Indianapolis, with a “league” that consists of four teams of 27 men. There’s no touring, no seasonal coverage, and certainly no long-term marketing strategy plans to involve even the rest of Italy, let alone the rest of the world. The 2008 rule changes were a clear indication that tolerance for calcio’s excesses is diminishing, even within the small and regional circle that proudly celebrates the sport.
So what’s stopping the U.S. from starting its own Calcio Storico League? Technically nothing, although it’s hard to imagine the country that banned trans fats warming up to calcio. Sure, the U.S. has seen its share of questionable sports ideas. Ultimate Tak Ball, for example, is eight-man soccer played with tasers, but that still seems less shocking (pun intended) than punching, kicking, head-butting or choking your way to the goal. Perhaps we can make more plausible internal apologies for technologically assisted violence than we can for bare-knuckle, bare-chested brutality.
Even if the U.S. audience was willing to look past the Renaissance Faire pomp and the funny name (can you say jai alai?), the slope to acceptance would be dauntingly steep. As in Florence itself, we’d see increasingly restrictive rules as calcio struggled to conform to standards of safety and conduct — just look at the difference between the modern UFC and the classic Vale Tudo matches that inspired it. Given the rule changes that calcio is already facing, the logical end product wouldn’t be much different than modern soccer or rugby, both of which still struggle to dependably captivate U.S. audiences and investors.
Ultimately, the central irony of calcio is that its most appealing aspect is also the one that we cannot condone. Hockey was “grandfathered in,” and even so is considerably less violent and more regulated than it was in its heyday, a heyday which many believe is long past and will never come again, unless maybe the NHL bans fighting.
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