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.
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.
Among other positive results, the tournament has developed collaboration with Bologna's Radio Asterisco, which broadcasts live from the festival each day. One afternoon, radio DJs interviewed Jibril Deen, a native Gambian and naturalized citizen of Hungary, who formed the African Stars Football Club in 1994 when the end of communism in Eastern Europe marked a time of social and economic upheaval.
"We formed the soccer club to create understanding between Africans and Hungarians because there was a rise in anti-immigrant groups in the early 1990s," he says.
Christian Peterniti, a musician from Sardinia whose hip-hop music reflects poverty and social struggle in the barrios of Palermo, performed live on the air with his group GenteStranaPosse. After playing soccer at the Anti-Racist World Cup in 2007, he returned to Sicily and worked to create a similar tournament involving immigrants and teams from the barrios of Palermo.
"In starting a tournament, we have witnessed how people have really been changed by it," Mr. Peterniti says. "It's something so simple and accessible to everyone, just like music."
Music was the theme of the film "Nazirock," screened for a crowd of more than 100 people in the "Anti-Racist Piazza," the main square of the tournament. The Italian documentary, directed by Claudio Lazzaro, explores neo-fascist and neo-Nazi rock bands in Italy and their role in the politics of intolerance.
While the atmosphere of the tournament is festive, forum discussions range from the aggressive culture of machismo that permeates the ultra fan culture to the subject of discrimination against Roma in Europe.
Andrea Fabbri Cossarini, a social worker with the Italian trade union CGIL, was working to collect fingerprints as a symbolic display of protest against a controversial Italian initiative to fingerprint all Roma children. While Italian leaders claim the initiative will help integrate Roma children living in Italy, the EU Parliament has called the fingerprinting racial discrimination.
"These people are Italian citizens just like me, and no one has taken my fingerprint," Mr. Cossarini says, who added that efforts such as the Anti-Racist World Cup could help improve the climate of tolerance in Europe. "We need to show that we are able to create a Europe which is not defined by the euro, but by a social consciousness."
The CGIL team, in green and white stripes, was warming up on a field beside "Dynamo Papinsky," one of the youngest teams present, whose members came from a local youth center and had made their own T-shirts and practiced for four months in anticipation of the event. It was their first tournament.
"Football is very good for them because it really helps them to release a lot of energy, stress, and aggression," says Monia Mattioli, a youth center educator as she watches the team, made up of Italians and second-generation Moroccans and Tunisians, warm up.
What did the team expect from their first game at the World Cup? "To win," said one player with determination. And they did, 1-0.