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Added: 12 December 2017

Thirty burly men stand in confrontation, fists raised, eyes locked on their opposing forward. Then the chaos of battle begins. Swaying, grappling, punching: one player’s forehead splits wide open, blood mixes with sweat, and then sand excoriates the open gash as the wounded player is pummelled into the dust, his legs arcing upwards clothed in what appear to be lady undergarments from Pride and Prejudice. Welcome to Italy and the Calcio Storico.

This contest was dreamt up by aristocrats in Florence during the 16th century, and while the name translates as ‘historic football’, it looks more like a brutal hybrid of mixed martial arts and rugby. That’s why we’re here, the first of three road trips between the six nations that do battle in Europe’s powerhouse rugby union tournament. Mitsubishi is a partner of England Rugby and its Scottish equivalent, and we’re doing the 1800-mile trip from France to Italy in an L200 pick-up.


It’s a suitably rugged companion to cross the Alps on unpaved roads, before attending a game that sees grown men beat each other up in what appear to be Camelot costumes. The utility vehicle segment has been pivotal to Mitsubishi’s success, with a heritage dating back four decades, during which time well over four million have been manufactured.


This fifth-generation L200 is new from the ground-up, and continues to be the only pick-up with a switchable four-wheel-drive system; it’s also got a low-range transfer ’box, the option to lock the centre diff, 205mm of ground clearance, and a huge loadbed to cart about chainsaws, tow ropes and other stuff for bounding out into the wilderness. If the only dirt you get under your fingernails comes from some light rose-tending, the L200 is still pretty handy on the road, with Mitsubishi targeting the refinement and dynamism of an SUV with the hardiness that’s central to its award-winning pick-up’s appeal.

Our test car is the latest L200 from Mitsubishi Special Vehicle Projects, a high-spec limited-edition called the Barbarian SVP II which costs around £30,000 before VAT. On top of the standard spec, you get some eye-catching orange detailing on the grille, head and tail lights and door handle recesses, shark-fin side steps, beefed-up wheelarch extensions, satin-black rear roll bars and unique orange-and-black 17-inch alloy wheels wrapped in BF Goodrich All-Terrain tyres. For a kid who grew up coveting the Fall Guy truck, the Barbarian SVP II definitely strikes a chord.

Four of us rendezvous near Calais early on Thursday, loading all our camera and video gear and five days’ luggage in the generous, lined flatbed. The SVP II also gets a Mountain Rolltop retractable, lockable cover to keep all our kit hidden from prying eyes. You can get single-cab L200s, but the SVP II comes as a top-spec double-cab, giving acres of room for passengers to keep comfortable and have a snooze between stints at the wheel.


All models get a 2.4-litre turbodiesel good for 179bhp and 40mpg. As we head south on the autoroute, the L200 pulls keenly through the six manual gears, settles to a high cruising speed at low revs, and suffers only modest wind noise. Perhaps most unexpected is how little road noise seeps up from the chunky off-road rubber.

We fast-forward over the flat planes of northern France, skirting around Reims, Dijon and Lyon on our way south. We’ve got sat-nav, comfortable leather seats, dual-zone climate-control, Bluetooth and a USB charge point, plus hundreds of miles between fills – everything we need, in other words, for a stress-free run across an entire country. Around 6pm that evening, over 500 miles after we first set off, we find ourselves in Albertville, nestled on the south-eastern fringes of the Massif des Bauges national park, leaving just a 60-mile dash to the border the next day. We don’t need a wake-up call: with temperatures soaring to 35degC and no air-conditioning in our hotel, we’re raring to pay-up and get in the L200’s chilled cabin by 7am the next morning.


The scenery is BIG down here, with huge mountains filling the windscreen, vast rocky riverbeds and super-sized civil engineering unfurling ahead of us to teleport us over the border. We pause at the ski town of Oulx, leaving on a road that spirals aggressively upwards, gradually narrowing as it threads into the tree line, past the chalets and up towards the ski lifts. It’s not long before the sealed surface vanishes altogether.


The fine covering of sand swirls up behind us in a cloudy trail, deep wheel tracks run like railway lines, and abrupt hairpins twist into steep inclines, forcing a shift down to first gear – the manual is no sweat, but the optional paddleshift auto would certainly reduce the workload. There’s no need to switch into four-wheel drive just yet – the chunky BF Goodrich tyres and generous ground clearance are all we need. And, to be fair, the only oncoming car we see in the first mile seems to be a supermarket delivery truck.



Quickly the road becomes more challenging, though, with deep, muddy ruts filled with water under the shade of evergreen trees. I don’t want to risk giving it a go in rear-wheel drive, so I come to a stop, twist the rotary dial near the gearstick over to four-wheel drive, then push it down and twist it right again to lock the centre differential. You wouldn’t do it on the road because the front and rear wheels can’t turn at different speeds to account for corners, but on a very low-speed slippery surface, having all the wheels turn at exactly the same speed claws more traction. And if it gets tougher still, a further twist to the right will engage the low-range transfer case for lower gearing, so you can crawl across particularly tough ground.

You can feel the tyres squidge and suck out as much traction as possible as we rock through the ruts, and it’s here that the L200 really comes into its own, stoically powering over the toughest terrain without pause or complaint. Up and up we climb, the road dropping away dramatically to one side, the terrain too bumpy to be tackled at anything quicker than walking pace. Thankfully we meet only mountain bikes and motorbikes up here, and eventually we reach the summit and a breathtaking panorama, staring out over to a part of France that was once Italy, standing right where occupying Nazi forces battled the resistance in 1944, ending in a brutal defeat at the hands of the Germans.

We trace a different route down the southern side of the mountain range, the serpentine coil of road unfurling in progressively gentler twists until we again reach a sealed surface, sunburned from a day’s shooting, fine dust still falling from our starchy hair. That night we stay in Cesana Torinese, and strike out the next morning with five hours to Florence.

As we head along the coast, down from Turin towards Genoa on the E80, the temperature drops, a fine spray of rain begins to fall, and the scenery looks gloriously Mediterranean, with lush, towering mountainsides dotted with colourful houses just visible in the hanging mist above us.


Finally we ease into Florence, picking up our guide Riccardo Cacace, who magics tickets and secures the choicest viewing spots. Many of the roads are already closed in preparation for the game, so we park up, grab our kit and lug it halfway across the city, through bustling crowds in temperatures that are now back into the 30s. We think we’ve got it tough, then we watch the pre-match parade strutting through Piazza Della Signoria. There are people dressed in full renaissance costume, some tossing huge flagpoles 10 or so feet in the air (and, more impressively, catching them), some wearing armour when, really, the police already seem to have everything under control.

But there is an undercurrent of tension. Four teams (the whites, blues, greens and reds) take part in the Calcio Storico, each one representing a different quarter of Florence. Played a couple of weeks previously, the semi-finals have already seen their fair share of incident: Riccardo tells us a blue player kicked a referee and the whites progressed to play the reds in the finals via an appeals process, despite the blues leading when the game was abandoned. Today, the defeated blues prowl the streets, all bulging muscles, sprawling tattoos and puffed chests; they chant that the whites need to win on the pitch, not off it, and right now it seems the most important thing in the world.

ThumbnailThe procession leads down the network of cool, shady back streets, before filing into the bright sunlight of Piazza Santa Croce, where Calcio Storico has been played since the 16th century. Grandstands frame a stone surface specially covered in sand and divided in half with a goalmouth stretching the width of each end. Players need to chuck the ball over the padded lower section, but below the top of the net, taking care to miss the tent in the middle; that belongs to the captain and standard bearer – if Arsene Wenger were managing a team, you’d see him pop out of here and admonish the players periodically.

The white (Santo Spirito) and red (Santa Maria Novella) fans are separated at opposing ends, the grandstands either side a more impartial crowd. It’s an incredible setting, especially as the huge doors of Basilica di Santa Croce – the main Franciscan church in Florence, and resting place of Michelangelo – seem to be consumed by the incoming red shirts like a rising sea, your mind struggling to compute the juxtaposition. There are chants and colourful flares and an edgy undercurrent that’s part wrestling showmanship, part out-of-control testosterone; some players seem genuinely keen to meet opposition fans for a quick catch-up after. The white fans are noisier, but we decide we’d least like to be beaten up by the red players; they look far harder, and we decide they’ll win.


The game provides a lot to get your head round. Each team consists of 27 players and includes three goalkeepers, but at first the ball isn’t even in play. Instead, the 15 forwards fight in pairs until one manages to pin the other to the floor, at which point he must submit to humiliation while the victor swigs a drink or waves at friends.


From what I can glean, it seems the ball comes into play once every battle has a victor, and is thrown between players much as you’d expect in rugby. There’s no sign of an offside rule like in football, no forbidding of the forward-pass like rugby, while tripping and punching are allowed. Some players do get red cards though.

Each time there’s a score, a cannon fires, the teams switch ends, and the process repeats for 50 long minutes: fight, sit on someone, throw ball, score, cannon, switch. The players never seem to tire, they just get bloodier, their sweaty bodies coated in sand like greasy drumsticks rolled in breadcrumbs. 

The whites just keep ahead throughout, and while a half-point is awarded to the reds when a white attempt misses its target, they never quite claw back the deficit. It finishes 6 to the whites, 5.5 to the reds. The crowd erupts, the whites bound up to the fences that separate them from their fans like famished tigers with a whiff of flesh, fists clenched, flags waving, blood still dripping. It certainly makes for a more dramatic photo opportunity than pulling your shirt over your head.

That night fireworks explode above the Arno River from Piazzale Michelangelo, colourfully lighting up the crowds in spectacularly relentless volleys. The next morning, we’re granted special permission to drive the Mitsubishi L200 into the Calcio Storico arena, before the hard-partying city wakes, Piazza Santa Croce now eerily quiet after the previous day’s intensity. Looking even harder coated in dirt, it’s a fitting closing shot for a pick-up that’s taken every kick and punch we could throw at it. Now all that remains is the small matter of 900 or so miles back to Calais.

Barbarian SVP II

Price £30,000 + VAT (est)
On sale Early 2018
Engine 2442cc 16v turbodiesel 4-cyl, 179bhp @ 3500rpm, 317lb ft @ 2500rpm 
Transmission 6-speed manual, all-wheel drive
Performance (est) 10.4sec 0-62mph, 111mph, 39.8mpg, 186g/km CO2 
Suspension Double wishbone front, leaf springs rear
Weight 1860kg (est)
Length/width/height 5285/1815/1780mm

ThumbnailThe Engine
The L200’s diesel displaces 2442cc – big for a four-cylinder engine. With 317lb ft of torque, it’s tuned for low-down response, good for hauling loads, off-roading and easy running on-road. It’s the only pick-up with an all-aluminium engine.

Switchable 4wd
You can choose to drive the L200 in either rear- or four-wheel drive thanks to the Super Select 4x4 system – just turn the rotary controller next to the gearstick. Push it down and twist it further and you can first lock the centre diff and, if you twist it again, engage low-range gearing for particularly tough off-road work.

L is for luxury
This L200 Barbarian SVP II has Bluetooth, DAB radio, dual-zone air-con, auto headlights, heated/folding mirrors, keyless go, USB input, multi-function steering wheel and SD-card sat-nav. Driver aids include cruise control, rear-view camera, lane-departure warning, hill-start assist and trailer-stability assist.

And load-lugging
The L200’s loadbed is 1470mm wide, 475mm tall and 1520mm long. You’ll get a lot of stuff in there, and the retractable load cover keeps it safe. The bed can carry 1060kg, and you can safely load a further 3000kg in a braked trailer.

SVP II upgrades
The latest from Mitsubishi Special Vehicle Projects, this Barbarian SVP II gets orange exterior detailing, shark-fin side steps, beefed-up wheelarch extensions, satin-black rear roll bars and unique orange-and-black 17-inch alloy wheels wrapped in BF Goodrich All-Terrain tyres.



Invented by aristocrats, Calcio Storico translates as ‘historic football’ and dates back to at least the 16th century in Florence. Today, four teams represent four quarters of Florence: Santa Croce (blue), Santa Spirito (white), Santa Maria Novella (red) and San Giovanni (green).

The teams consist of 27 players each, including 15 forwards and three goalkeepers. After a fight between the forwards, the ball comes into play, and the players throw it between themselves, trying to get it in the goalmouths that stretch the width of each end. 

A goal is worth one point. A missed goal gives the rival team half a point. Two semi-finals are held, then the winners face off in a 50-minute final.


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