Every June, people gather in one of the main squares of Florence, Italy, to attend a few soccer matches.
But this is no ordinary soccer.
In calcio Fiorentino, or Florentine soccer, players can use their hands to carry or throw the ball.
They can also use their hands to punch their opponents in the face.
This brutal game, which has been a tradition in Florence for hundreds of years, is the subject of “The Last Gladiators,” a photo series by German-based photographer Michael Lowa.
“Sometimes you can't see the ball,” Lowa said. “You only see fighting, fighting, fighting. Several small groups, sometimes a big group. Then — oh! — there's a ball. Then the ball is moving. Only one or two players are running behind the player with the ball. All other players are fighting.”
Centuries ago, Florentine soccer used to be played by aristocrats, Lowa said. Now it’s played by everyday people, often laborers or the unemployed.
“It's violent, but it's a very big part of the culture, the history,” Lowa said.
There are four teams who participate every year, each representing a different district of Florence. They are identified by color: the Blues, the Reds, the Whites and the Greens.
They face off every year in a tournament that concludes on June 24, San Giovanni Day. San Giovanni, or St. John the Baptist, is the patron saint of Florence.
There are 27 players on each team. The object, like traditional soccer, is to score the most goals over the course of the match. These goals are much wider than traditional soccer goals, however, so more than one goalkeeper is needed.
During the 50-minute match, players can do almost anything to get the ball and prevent their opponents from scoring. Blood and broken bones are not uncommon.
Before the game begins, the players march to the sandy playing field in a great show of pageantry. Crowds cheer them on, and some reach over the fence to throw flowers onto the players.
The action is exhausting, intense. Players punch, kick, tackle and wrestle for every inch.
But when the game is over, normalcy is restored. Players embrace, seek medical treatment if needed, and go back to their anonymous, everyday lives.
“For a few days in the year, they're very, very important and famous,” Lowa said. “Everybody in the streets knows their name. But after one week, when (the games) are over, they're normal.”
- Kyle Almond, CNN