It's February 17, 1530, and the city of Florence has been under siege for three months by the army of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In an act of defiance, the residents decide to play a soccer match on the embankment of the River Arno in full view of their would-be conquerors. But this is no ordinary soccer match. This is the Calcio Storico - a brutal, bloody, no holds-barred battle between two teams of 27 men. Does it stop the siege? No. The city falls six months later, but the match becomes a piece of historical folklore that is celebrated to this day.
Fast-forward 480 years and I'm standing in a packed stand watching 54 men beat the living daylights out of each other. When I'd heard that the Calcio Storico was still played in Florence each year I presumed it would be a tame re-enactment. But this is the real deal. People are getting hurt and the crowd loves it. Normally, there are three matches - two semifinals and a final held on 24 June, the public holiday for St John, the patron saint of Florence. The matches are played between teams representing the four historic quarters of the city: San Giovanni (The Greens), Santa Maria Novella (Reds), Santa Croce (Blues) and Santo Spirito (Whites).
For some reason this year there is just the final between the Blues and the Whites. Whenever I ask someone why, they just shrug in that endearing Italian way and say they have no idea.
Before the match, marching bands in medieval costume accompany the players as they make their way to the makeshift dirt pitch in the piazza in front of Santa Croce church. A great roar goes up when the two teams enter the ground and start ripping their shirts off and rolling around in the dirt. In years gone by members of the nobility used to take part to show their strength and eligibility and the sudden appearance of dozens of shirtless, muscular men certainly seems to have piqued my girlfriend's interest.
The bands leave the pitch and the referee - who's dressed in a fetching red-and-white tunic, baggy pantaloons and a plumed hat - gets the game under way. Immediately, players from the opposing teams lock arms and start grappling in the dirt. I presume someone has the ball but it's hard to tell because the field is a writhing mass of bodies.
Eventually, a player from the Blues emerges from the scrum and sprints down the left flank. And straight into the elbow of an opponent. He goes down with a thump and the crowd goes wild. I ask the man standing next to me if there are any rules and he explains that the aim is to score a goal by throwing the ball into the opposing team's net, which stretches the entire width of the field. If it goes in, the team gets a point, if it misses or it's intercepted, the other team gets half a point. There is no half-time during the 50-minute contest. "Like a war", he adds by way of explanation.
Soon the goals start going in and after 30 minutes the Blues lead the Whites 4.5 to 2. A few minutes later the first player is stretchered off and now a team of yellow-shirted medics is patrolling the pitch pouring water over the exhausted men still wrestling on the ground. This is clearly an outlet for settling old scores. One bandera-wearing player of the Whites spends the entire game pursuing and ferociously tackling the same weary-looking player from the Blues.
When the final whistle blows, the Blues have thrashed the Whites 11.5 to 3. The jubilant team is joined by their prize - a white calf - and they parade proudly around the ground.
The celebrations carry on long into the night and finish with a spectacular fireworks display.
·Rob McFarland was a guest of Virgin Atlantic, Baglioni Hotels and the Italian Tourism Board.
- fact file *
·Virgin Atlantic flies to London via Hong Kong. virginatlantic.com.au. Good deals on flights from London can be found at cheapflights.co.uk.
·The Relais Santa Croce has stunning views of Santa Croce church. baglionihotels.com
·This year's final is on Sunday. calciostoricofiorentino.it and italiantourism.com.au