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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.
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.