Like many young men in Italy, the soccer players who put on their cleats for an afternoon match in this small Sicilian town dream of international stardom on the field. But for this group, having made it this far is already an achievement.
Each member of the 25-man amateur squad ASD Mineo is African. They risked their lives to cross the sea from Libya in overcrowded boats last year, a journey that killed hundreds of others in shipwrecks, in the hope of finding political asylum.
Their team – the first of its kind in Italy – was created and funded by the managers of the Mineo centre for asylum seekers, one of Europe’s largest such shelters.
ASD Mineo, as the team is called, is registered in the lowest category of Italy’s official football pyramid, which groups 600 divisions and in which, in theory, any team can rise to the top of the league, or Serie A. The team is on track to advance to the next division in its first season.
“We can make it all the way to Serie A,” 19-year-old Musa from Gambia said after defeating another – all-white – local team 4-0 on a recent Sunday. Like his teammates, Musa declined to give his full name for fear of reprisals against family members back home as he seeks political asylum.
In this country of soccer fanatics, ASD Mineo has become a test of racial integration. Though many Sicilians criticise local, national and European authorities for failing to provide enough resources to cope with the influx of immigrants, ASD Mineo has not suffered public resentment.
That’s not always the case at the national level, where racism has been a constant problem in football. Though top-flight teams include black and Muslim players, stadiums often echo with monkey chants. One of Italy’s best footballers, Mario Balotelli, a Sicilian-born son of Ghanaian immigrants who plays forward for AC Milan and Italy’s national team, has sometimes been on the receiving end.
Some argue that the problem is made worse by immigration rules which make it difficult for those whose families come from abroad to be accepted as Italians. Balotelli, for example, was not able to gain citizenship until he was 18.
Italy’s first black government minister, Cecile Kyenge, has tried to introduce a law allowing anyone born on Italian soil to become a citizen. She herself has been a target of racists – likened to an orangutan and pelted with bananas in public.
“Immigration is a terrible battleground for politicians,” says Maurizio Ambrosini, sociologist at the University of Milan. “But soccer can be a very effective tool in the fight against racism.”
Gateway to Europe Sicily, an island that on a map looks like a ball about to be kicked by the Italian “boot”, has been used as a stepping stone to the European mainland for millennia by, among others, Phoenicians, Greeks and Arabs.
Today it is a gateway for migrants and asylum seekers from as far away as India, Pakistan and the Syrian civil war. Most migrants come from Northern and sub-Saharan Africa. Italy has struggled to provide basic services to the 40 000 new arrivals last year amid its worst recession since World War Two.
The asylum centre in Lampedusa, Sicily was badly overcrowded last year. A video showing migrants standing naked in the cold while being sprayed for scabies stirred outrage and prompted authorities to transfer them out in December.
Many of the migrants ended up in the Mineo asylum centre, which sits in an isolated valley southwest of the smouldering, snow-capped Mount Etna volcano. Some 4 000 migrants from 40 nations occupy about 400 two-floor villas that once housed U.S. Navy personnel who worked at the nearby Sigonella NATO air base.
There has been occasional trouble: in October, residents of the shelter blocked the two-lane highway that runs next to the centre, threw rocks at police and destroyed cars to call for faster asylum and temporary permit procedures.
Many of the shelter’s residents had been waiting up to two years for documents needed to leave the camp and find work. Several of ASD Mineo’s soccer players have been waiting 10 months, though Italian guidelines say it should take between 45 days and six months to get through the asylum-request process.
‘Balotelli’ and ‘America’ Nineteen-year-old Mohammad from Togo – a defensive player on the team – was orphaned at age 12. Both his parents died of infection after what he described as a black magic ritual in which he and his parents were cut with machetes. He survived with deep crisscrossing scars on his thighs.
“In my village some people called me Balotelli, and then when I arrived in Italy they started calling me Balotelli,” says Mohammad, who sports a similar Mohawk haircut to the AC Milan star. The teenager says he left his village and, after crossing the Sahara desert, was stopped by police and imprisoned in Libya for not having legal travel documents. He managed to wrangle an exit from jail and get on a boat to Lampedusa.
The idea of forming a soccer team was hatched by the shelter’s director Sebastiano Maccarrone after he watched residents’ pick-up games. He asked a former professional player and employee of the shelter to form a team of the best players.
“Putting one team on the field was hard because there were so many good players to choose from,” saidGiuseppe Manzella, one of the two coaches. Those who made it got new soccer shoes and blue-and-white jerseys for games, and a red sweat suit.
“There are many people in the camp, and we are the lucky ones playing,” said Abu Anifa, a 19-year-old Ghanaian winger. “We are living better here than we did in Africa.”
Before stepping on the field one recent Sunday, six players removed their cleats and knelt for early afternoon Muslim prayers beside a ceramic statue of St. Agrippa, patron saint of the village. A handful of fans performed the same ritual on the sidelines. As the match started they shouted “Go America!”
“America” is the nickname of 19-year-old Ghanaian Abdullahi, top scorer in the league with 18 goals in 14 games. He chose the nickname because “I love America and want to go there”.
He did not disappoint, scoring two goals. ASD Mineo’s coaches say he is good enough to become a pro, and scouts from Catania’s Serie A team have showed an interest in him.
After the game, the African and Italian players shook hands. Some embraced, and they posed for pictures, winners and losers both smiling, arms around each others’ shoulders.
In my wildest dreams I never thought I would own a soccer team. But here I am at 29, possibly the world’s youngest team owner. And the most stressed in Botswana, if not the world. It’s no joke to run a team. Ask Jomo Sono, Patrice Motsepe and Roman Abramovich.
Of course I’m still waiting to become as rich and powerful as they are. My team is just a social soccer side playing in an informal league known round these parts as the “Sunday Times” because of when we play.
The Sunday Times “league” has taken Botswana by storm. Matches are organised mostly by word of mouth and the teams include a few old men, but the bulk are wild and badly behaved youngsters — some as young as 15.
My team — Industrial Super Stars, so named after the scrapyard area in Itekeng where the majority of our players live — is made up of disgruntled and uncontrollable alcoholics without any soccer skills to boast about. My bunch was rejected by other Sunday Times soccer clubs.
In my quest to be Motsepe, I took the opportunity to name and organise the team. But finding them before a match is more complicated, especially at the end of the month. After payday, the team owner has to endure moving from one drinking hole to another in search of his players.
One of the unique things about the Sunday Times soccer league is that the usual football rules and regulations are relaxed. So relaxed, most of them don’t apply. A player can be substituted and come back into play later, as many times as he likes. A referee might smoke a cigarette during the game. The referee can also be substituted if one team feels he is biased in favour of the opponents. When this happens, the ref is likely to express his disgust at the decision by donning the kit of the team that stood by him when he was subjected to insults.
Alcohol and dagga abound and the players use them with abandon. Because most players are unemployed — especially in my team — pints of Chibuku, a traditional brew, are a regular feature at the games.
These players don’t care if team “owners” and officials such as me are present when they take their dagga. They are very uncouth. They spew venom. They don’t want to be shouted at like professional coaches shout at their players. They threaten to decamp to another side and there are plenty to choose from at the bottom of the league barrel.
In the worst scenario they threaten to form their own team that will be run and controlled by them without being subjected to civil behaviour lectures. The most foul-mouthed will tell you to your face that you don’t own them and that just because you occasionally buy them pints of Chibuku, this doesn’t make you better than them.
I have been told to go and write shit in the papers whenever I called some of my players to order. “Just because you write for newspapers doesn’t mean you can lecture to us about good behaviour,” I have been told countless times.
It is a bit unfair because other football team owners, such as Sono, Motsepe and Abramovich, are not subjected to this treatment. By the same token, just because my bank balance hovers close to zero most of the time, it doesn’t mean I should be subjected to this sort of treatment, I mutter to myself.
Although I’m not given the respect that I deserve, the team is happy to use the water in my house to wash the kit. I’m also the custodian of the kit, which is a raw deal. Come half time nobody listens to the coach. They don’t want team talk. They just want alcohol and that foul-smelling green stuff.
One of the Industrial Super Stars officials is my younger brother. One recent Sunday we Mosikares were accused of having hijacked the team.
Drunken debates ensued. I came up with the idea of forming a rival team to the neighbouring Itekeng Soccer Club when I realised that the majority of my present players were not being given a chance to prove themselves.
To explain the set-up for a South African audience, let’s put it this way: if Industrial Super Stars were a political party it would be Cope; Itekeng Soccer Club would be the ANC.
My breakaway plan was hatched in the middle of the month when I did not have money to buy a team kit. So one of my cousins — among those now accusing me and my brother of hijacking control — went and bought the kit at one of the Chinese shops in town. It is a “fong kong” kit costing less than P200 (about R250).
I wanted to refund him so that I could be left to run my Industrial Super Stars the way I liked, but he refused. My cousin can be difficult to deal with. On the field he will agree to be substituted only when he wants to smoke a cigarette.
In our way my team is like a close-knit family. And like all families, we bicker. It’s just as well we hardly ever win any matches — when we do, the boys drink until they drop.
Oarabile Mosikare is a reporter for Mmegi and Monitor newspapers. He lives in Francistown, Botswana. This post was first published in the M&G newspaper.