A soccer tournament with a social conscience
The Anti-Racist World Cup in Bologna, Italy, draws more than 200 amateur teams each year who come to build bridges and challenge a history of soccer hooliganism in Europe.
A hot Mediterranean sun parched the soccer fields of Casalecchio as the 204 soccer teams from 27 countries gathered for the 3 p.m. shaking of hands. African political refugees, Italian Roma, Danish feminists, young Ecuadoran gang members from the streets of Genova, and many more all stood in neat lines for the official start.Skip to next paragraph
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Moments later, they broke chaotically into the inaugural game of the four-day Anti-Racist World Cup, an extraordinary amateur soccer tournament that takes place each year in this northern Italian town.
The 10-year-old tournament began in response to violence among European "ultras," manic soccer fans whose devotion to a particular professional team is often inextricably linked to a political identity. Soccer fan culture at its worst can produce "hooligans" – aggressive, sometimes nationalist, fans whose antics darken the reputation of all soccer fans.
"Now we are living in a time of peace in Europe, but we use soccer to make war between countries that have historically had problems," said Francesca Veneziano, a Youth Action for Peace volunteer from Rome. She was drawn to the event, she says, because it offers a much-needed response to a violent undercurrent in the soccer fan culture. "People have died in Italy. There are fans who are violent and angry at the police."
But the Anti-Racist World Cup is an unexpected byproduct of the ultra fan base, and although the event has all the trappings of an ultra party – team flags, banners; soccer songs; and the boisterous revelry of sports, music, and beer – the atmosphere is more multicultural festival. On the first night of the tournament, the voices of soccer fans singing at the restaurant tent overlap with Italian folk music and, later, the rhythm of African drums.
"The event was founded by Project Ultra, a soccer fan group, as a way to validate the culture of ultras and reduce incidents of violence, not through more rules but through real social work," says tournament spokeswoman Daniela Conti. "In this way, the idea emerged that we could mix not only soccer groups, but also other ideas and cultures."
The World Cup supports an accessible sports culture that supersedes not only geopolitical borders, but also the more abstract borders of fear and intolerance, Ms. Conti explains. For instance, one team comprises Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims playing on the same side, another team groups together juvenile offenders from a local prison and their social workers.
The tournament, which now attracts more than 8,000 people, is noncompetitive and prizes are only symbolic. Promotion for the event is by word of mouth. Teams composed of players of all skill levels and ages can receive extra points if they present a poster explaining their work against discrimination in their home communities. Since this tournament was founded, similar tournaments have flourished across Europe.
Unlike other tournaments, the Anti-Racist World Cup space is free of commercial advertisements and sponsorships. It receives funding from municipal authorities in the region as well as pan-European sports culture groups and European Union programs.
And the tournament's impact is tangible. After attending for years, ultras of the official Genovese team of Sampdoria were inspired to develop a soccer initiative aimed at Ecuadoran and Moroccan gang members from the streets of Genova. The newly recruited players made their first appearance at the Anti-Racist World Cup tournament this year.