IN ITALY, where the ports are closed to the ships that rescue migrants found at sea, a football team offers hope to those who have come as refugees from Africa. They are able to kick a ball with other refugees who have risked their life in precarious boats, as well as in the prison camps of Libya.
The team, Africa Academy Calcio (“Africa Football Academy”), was formed two years ago, in the port of Livorno, with the support of various associations and migrants’reception centres in the area.
Just behind a Jewish cemetery, in a small, muddy football field offered by the local team, Orlando Calcio, in the northern suburbs of the city, the boys of the Africa Academy train twice a week. Asylum-seekers reach the camp by bike or on foot, taking time away from the “extraordinary reception centres” where they are staying, set up to overcome the lack of places in ordinary migrants’ reception facilities.
GIACOMO SINIThe President coach of Africa Football Academy, Franco Marrucci, teaches Italian
The main creator of this project is Franco Marrucci, aged 50, the president and coach of the club. He is listed in the Milan A.C instructors register. “I could have chosen to train a high-class team,” he explains, “but, when I met these guys and listened to their stories, I realised that by offering them the possibility of inserting them into a team, I would have done something concrete for them, and emotion naturally prevailed.”
He insists on the importance of punctuality and the correct use of Italian: he also gives language lessons at the local Ce.S.D.I (“Immigrant Women Services Center”).
The young players who wear the Africa Academy shirt are all 23 to 30 years old, profess different religions, and come mainly from Western Africa. While they are training, there is a linguistic and cultural babel, although they are united by the desire to play football. Mohamed, of Senegalese origins, is one of the “historical” players of the Academy, and has been living in Italy for four years. Every summer, he spends long periods in Spain to work as a labourer, as he has never managed to find a similar or more profitable job in Italy. Yossou, from Gambia, besides training every week, works also as a gardener, although he has always been a fisherman: “I like to build fishing nets. When I arrived in Italy, I found work in the port in Livorno.”
The usual goalkeeper is Antho, who was already playing football in the city where he lived, Lagos. He now has the status of international protection, which has to be renewed every six months and which he could lose. Asked if he would perhaps prefer to go to another European state, he replies that he is Italian, and “his place is here”.
With the security decree wanted by the ruling party of the Lega Nord (“Northern League”), and now approved by parliament, asylum-seekers hosted in “non-ordinary” centres, or in the SPRAR project (Protection System for Refugees and Asylum-Seekers) are likely to find themselves soon in a difficult position.
GIACOMO SINICollaboration with schools in the city
In Livorno, the young men of the Africa Academy have already received letters for the revocation of humanitarian permits, and for the expulsion of those who live there.
“The new government’s policy will end up creating greater marginalisation and social conflict, leaving these people abandoned to themselves — or, worse, in the hands of criminal organisations,” Mr Marrucci says.
Although the Africa Academy is mainly made up of people of African origin, the club is open to anyone. It seeks to be inclusive and fight prejudices linked to migrants. This has been possible through the collaboration with some schools in the city, such as the technical institute ITIS Galileo Galilei. Since the birth of the project, the high-school team, which includes girls, has played some friendly matches against the Africa Academy team of the institute.
At one match, when the Africa Academy team score a goal, the students celebrate as if their own team had scored. “The match is clearly only a pretext,” the Principal of the High School, Giuliana Ficini, explains. “When Franco [Marrucci] came to the school to present the project, with three players of the academy, we accepted without hesitation.
“They told the classes about their experience, and it was so instructive. Many students and teachers knew these stories only through what was spread by TV and social networks, often in a distorted manner.”
The Africa Football Academy is affiliated to the CSI Italian Sports Center, but Mr Marrucci has been working for some time to obtain the official membership of the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) — at least for those players who are loaned to other local teams.
“With the security decree, our players will no longer be able to play sports, and this experience could be ceased any day now,” he says. “With an official recognition by the FIGC instead, they could receive the domicile within the team where they play.”
The Africa Football Academy has managed to survive by self-financing through fund-raisers, and a significant contribution has even come from some shops, which have been giving items such as football boots, towels, and sweaters. The municipality, however, offered only its patronage.
Antho, the goalkeeper, often had to borrow goalkeeping gloves from the team that owned the football field where the Academy plays; and the team does not have a van.
On the Facebook page of the club, there are people who write directly from Africa. Some, besides supporting this “diasporic” team, have expressed the desire one day to be able to wear that red shirt with the logo of the African continent. Although similar teams were also formed in other parts of Italy, Africa Academy Calcio fits into the cosmopolitan tradition of Livorno.
In the only Italian city that has never known a “ghetto” in its history, it would be difficult for anyone to feel foreign.
The names of the members of Africa Academy Calcio have been changed.