A soccer team gives hope to refugees in Italy

The émigrés, many of whom fled persecution in their own lands, form the country’s first professional team made up entirely of refugees.

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    At home on a field: An Afghan man carts off balls after a practice with other team members of Liberi Nantes, an all-refugee soccer team in Italy that includes players from Eritrea, Guinea, Iraq, Nigeria, Sudan, and Togo.
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Karim, an Afghan with a powerful kick, passes the soccer ball to Mamadi, who is streaking up the sidelines. Mamadi, from Guinea, dribbles left and then deftly lunges toward the goal, where his Iraqi teammate, Akar, shadows him, waiting for a pass. Awote, a talented midfielder from Sudan, races up from behind. Mamadi feints left. He boots the ball – and scores.

This game, underway on an ashy patch of earth on the edge of Rome, sounds like it could be part of a United Nations soccer league. But it is actually being played by a single team – the Liberi Nantes Football Club, Italy’s first professional soccer team made up entirely of refugees.

To get here, many of these players braved harrowing journeys. Most fled persecution in their homelands. All have escaped either prison, war, or poverty.

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Mamadi, Akar, and Karim are not their real names. These players will never end up with their pictures on trading cards. Authorities in their countries believe they are dead – and if they knew the truth, it would put their families at home in danger.

Trading cards or not, this year, these men will be competing for the championship in the Italian soccer league’s third division. The 25-man squad is made up of players from the world’s trouble spots: Afghanistan, Eritrea, Guinea, Iraq, Nigeria, Sudan, Togo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most of them have only recently arrived in Italy.

Bereft of jobs and homes, they live in “welcoming centers” and are dependent on the welfare services that Rome provides for them.

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The team’s name, Liberi Nantes, comes from a verse in Book I of the “Aeneid” by Virgil. The exiled Trojans, fleeing their burning city, had shipwrecked and only a few of them (rari nantes) immersed in the vast sea (in gurgite vasto) reached shore. The Trojans were refugees, too, forced to flee a war, and, like the players of the Liberi Nantes, they crossed the Mediterranean in search of a place to start life anew.

More than 2,700 years later, in the same place they settled, Ibrahin makes an impressive save as he jumps to catch a ball hurtling toward his goal. The imposing Togolese is the captain and goalkeeper of the squad.

Before he steps out onto the field, he kisses a picture of his son, which he keeps on his cellphone. Ibrahin (not his real name) hasn’t seen him since before he was sent to a military prison back in Togo almost a year ago. He says he was arrested for participating in a protest against President Faure Gnassinbé, who was elected in 2005 amid suspicions of vote-rigging. At the time, Ibrahin, a member of an opposition party, was working as an engineer.

Government security forces clashed violently with protestors over a labor contract. “They massacred thousands of people, and the newspapers didn’t talk about it,” says Ibrahin.

He decided to flee the country, a move that cost him $1,200 – a lifetime’s saving for most Togolese. Unable to get a European travel visa, Ibrahin journeyed through the desert between Niger and Libya with 20 other refugees. Then, he survived a treacherous trip across rough waters from Tripoli to Lampedusa, an island off Sicily, in a dinghy with 40 passengers.
“Sometimes, we eat dinner together, and when I talk to him, my problems seem so small,” says Giulio Gualerzi, the coach of the team.

Today Ibrahin shares a room with seven other people in a social-service center. He spends his days in a lawyer’s waiting room. Like the
others, his first request for asylum was rejected, and he is waiting for his appeal to be heard.

Yet his options may be limited. Asylum laws have toughened in Italy under the Berlusconi government and anti-immigrant sentiment runs deep in some regions. In 2007, government territorial commissions examined 13,509 requests for asylum. Only 1,408 were granted.

As he struggles with the bureaucracy, Ibrahin finds that soccer keeps his mind off the painful separation from his family and his precarious immigration status. “In the Liberi Nantes, I found other guys that are in the same situation as me, with the same problems,” he says. “This has helped me a lot.”

Karim’s tale is no less woeful. In 2005, the Taliban killed his family, and American bombs, he says, destroyed his house in Afghanistan. To escape, Karim spent five days traveling through the Persian mountains in a truck packed cheek-by-rucksack with 50 people.

Karim doesn’t talk much. He has been in Italy for nine months and tells me that he was an expert shoemaker back in his home country.
He’s also good with his feet. A center-forward on the soccer team, he is agile, powerful, and has a howitzer for a left kick. At the moment, he is limping off the field, due to an overzealous tackle from a Sudanese midfielder. I compliment him on his game and something between a smile and expression of pain animates his face.

Like many others on the team, he lives in a social-service center, cannot find work, and would never consider going back to Afghanistan. “A puppet,” Karim says of Afghan president Hamid Karzi, “put in power by the Americans.”

Yet living under the Taliban was far worse. “They are like your mafia here in Italy,” he says, sitting on the edge of the field, resting his ankle. “They destroyed our fields, killed people, and stole what little we had.”

Mamadi, for his part, spent time in a prison in his home country of Guinea. He says authorities arrested and later tortured him for participating in a union protest. The soccer team here has been one of the few things that has buoyed his spirits.

Significantly, he noticed that when he first began to play on the team, the African and Afghan players stayed in their own cliques. He decided to start working out with the Afghans. The resulting change in chemistry, he says, was a “miracle.”

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Gianluca Di Girolami is an athletic man with a stern gaze. For years, he has belonged to an organization that works with refugees in Italy. He’s also always been an avid soccer fan. In July 2007, he decided to combine his two passions: He formed the Liberi Nantes Football Club.

Mr. Di Girolami noticed how many refugees were members of their national teams back home. “If we offer these people a warm meal and a place to sleep without giving them the possibility to have fun, we have only done a halfway job,” he says. “We want to give their lives a little bit of normalcy.”

The team trains three times a week, plus plays a weekly match. It wins some games and loses others.

Money for the team comes from charitable organizations. Although the players aren’t paid, they do receive uniforms and help with travel expenses. Di Girolami has bought 25 soccer balls with his own eruos.

As today’s practice ends, Karim remains on the field. The others have scampered off to celebrate the arrival of their new uniforms.

Tomorrow morning, Karim will wake up and look for work yet again, and, in the coming months, the Italian authorities will examine his appeal. Someone runs up to him smiling and shows him his new uniform – No. 9.

Who knows if he will be able to stay long enough to wear it.

“We are actually starting the season with two-thirds of the original team,” says Mr. Gualerzi, the coach. “Some of them have disappeared, others have been sent back home, and some players have been moved to other welcoming centers far away from Rome.”

Still, those who remain take solace in banana kicks and a sense of brotherhood. “We will continue forward,” says Di Girolami. They, too, should be given the right to play.”

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