• Language: Italian
  • Pronunciation: ˈkaltʃo
  • Etymology: from the Latin calx (‘heel’  or ‘kick’)

When it comes to the language of football, Italian is fiercely independent.

Where most languages have adopted the word panenka, Italian has the colpo a cucchiaio (‘spoon shot’). While the rabona has caught on in the majority of footballing tongues, the Italians talk of the incrociata (‘crossed kick’). And when it comes to describing the game itself, where most nations use some variation on ‘football’, Italy has calcio.

Unsurprisingly, the word calcio derives from Latin and specifically calx, meaning ‘heel’, or ‘kick’. What makes this word interesting, however, is its appearance in describing an early version of the game of football – calcio in livrea.

Kickball in costumes

Around the 13th or 14th century, noblemen in Florence would play a brutal ball game to let out their most violent urges. Perhaps to offset some of this bestiality, the young and the wealthy would dress up in their finest silks before going postal on one another, hence the term calcio in livrea (‘kickball in costumes’).

The story sheds light on the violence that was permitted in the game – and, by extension, society – as it was back then. Physical brutality was the end, with the ball often little more than the means (insert your own Stoke joke here). Calcio players could shoulder charge, punch and kick the opposition, and blows below the belt were very much allowed.

In good company

The Florentines were far from the first to let loose their dark side via a nice friendly ball game: among others, the Mayans and the Ancient Greeks (not forgetting the English) are recorded to have played similarly brutal sports. In the Mayan version – called pitz in Classic Maya or la pelota (‘the ball’) in Spanish – the captain of the losing team was often sacrificed. Now, the debate over who should be captain of the national team has always seemed like overblown flimflam to me, but if JT or Wazza were to risk death by donning the armband I’d probably have more respect for the whole institution.

Early rules of the game

In 1580 was written what is thought to be the earliest set of written rules for any version of football – Discorso sopra ‘l giuoco del Calcio Fiorentino (‘Discourse on the game of Calcio Fiorentino’) – with the game now taking the name calcio fiorentino after its town of origin. In these rules, teams have 27 players who can use their feet and hands to move the ball. Goals (cacce) are scored by throwing the ball into nets at either end of the pitch.

Calcio fiorentino is said (usually by Italians) to be the forerunner to modern football, and was taken to Paris (and, subsequently, the UK) in 1540 when Florentine noblewoman Caterina de Medici married Henri II and became Queen of France.

Calcio storico and Florentine cows

Interest in the game waned in Italy the early 1700s, before a revival in the 1930s. Nowadays calcio storico (‘historic kickball’) is played in June in the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence. The game as it is today permits head-butting, punching, elbowing, and choking, but, to stop things getting violent, sucker punches and kicks to the head are forbidden. The winner of these games is, of course, awarded a white Florentine cow (chianina) for their efforts.

Maybe the Florentines were right all along?

So football, like the language itself, holds a long and proud history in Italy. With this in mind, it’s perhaps not surprising that Italian football retains a spirit of independence in its vocabulary.

And maybe those early Florentines had it right: who’s to say football as we know it wouldn’t be so much better if it were settled by a good old fashioned headbutt and celebrated with the award of a lovely white cow?