Africa Football Academy fights prejudice through inclusion

In Italy this football team offers new perspective to African refugees

© Giacomo Sini

In Matteo Salvini’s Italy, where ports are closed for ships that recover migrants dispersed in the sea, a football team offers a new perspective to refugees from Africa. They share the dream of being able to play football while sharing the same tragic experiences, risking their lives on precarious boats, as well as in the prison camps of Libya.

The team is called “Africa Academy Calcio” – “Africa Football Academy”, and was founded in Livorno two years ago with the support of various associations and reception centers for migrants in the area. It is not by coincidence the team was founded in Livorno, the city has namely been able to prosper from the sixteenth century on because of the influx of merchants and refugees from every place in the Mediterranean area.

Just behind the Jewish cemetery in the northern suburbs of the city, in a small football field covered with mud offered by the local football team “Orlando Calcio”, the boys of the Africa Academy train twice a week. Asylum seekers reach the camp by bike or on foot, asking permission to freely leave the CAS or “extraordinary reception centers” for a few hours. Those were founded in agreement with cooperatives and associations to overcome the lack of places in ordinary migrants’ reception facilities — where they are hosted.

© Giacomo Sini

Franco Marrucci, president and coach of the club

The main creator of this project is the fifty-year-old Franco Marrucci, president and coach of the club, who was already registered in the Milan A.C instructors register. “I could have chosen to train a high-class team, continuing with the Milan Academy”, he explains, “but when I met these guys and listened to their stories, I realised that by offering them the possibility of joining a team, I could do something for them. So emotion naturally prevailed”. In addition of taking care of his young men’s sport training, he tries to teach them rules of behaviour, such as the importance of punctuality in Western society and the correct use of Italian, giving language lessons at the local “Ce.S.D.I” – “Immigrant Women Services Center”.

The young players who wear the Africa Academy shirt, are all about 23 to 30 years old, profess different religions and mainly come from Western Africa. During training, it is easy to grasp a linguistic and cultural babel, although in reality they are deeply united by the desire to play football, sharing a condition of precariousness. Mohamed*, of Senegalese origins, is one of the first 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, since he has never managed to find a similar or more profitable job in Italy. Yossou* from the Gambia has always been a fisherman, but now works as a gardener. “I like to build fishing nets, when I arrived in Italy, I found work in the port in Livorno.”

Antho* usually is the goal keeper. In the streets of Lagos, his hometown, he started playing football. He received the status of international protection which has to be renewed every six months and which he soon can lose. Asked if he would perhaps prefer to go to another European state, he laughs and replies: “I am Italian, and my place is here”.

With the “security decree” proposed by the ruling party of Lega Nord which was approved by the Parliament, asylum seekers hosted in “non-ordinary” centers or in the so-called “Sprar” are soon likely to find themselves in the streets. Even in Livorno, the centers where the young men of the Africa Academy live, already received letters for the revocation of humanitarian permits and the expulsion of their inhabitants.

‘The new Government’s policy will end up creating larger marginalisation and social conflict, leaving these people abandoned and on their own, or worse, in the hands of criminal organisations’

As Franco says, “the new Government’s policy will end up creating larger marginalisation and social conflict, leaving these people abandoned and on their own, or worse, in the hands of criminal organisations”. This scenario would certainly give new consent to the propaganda of Matteo Salvini, which has been prospering almost exclusively on the criminalisation of migrants.

The Africa Academy is largely made up by people of African origin, but the club is open for everyone. Its aim is to promote inclusion and fight prejudices related to migration. This has been made possible through collaboration with schools in the city, like the Technical Institute “ITI — Galileo Galilei”. Since the start of the project, the high school has played friendly games against the Africa football Academy with a football team of the institute, among them also girls.

On a rainy Saturday, the long-awaited day of another friendly match against the ITI’s team has arrived. In a serene atmosphere, a radio on the stands spreads news of the umpteenth seizure of an NGO ship by Italian authorities. After the first goal for the Africa Academy, the high school students sitting in the tribunes, cheer as if their own team had scored.

“The match clearly is only a pretext”, explains the Principal of the High School, Giuliana Ficini, “Franco came to our school to present the project with three players of the academy. We accepted without hesitation. They entered the classrooms to speak with the students about their experiences. Many students and teachers only knew these stories through television and social networks. Often information brought in a distorted manner”.

The Africa Football Academy is affiliated to the “CSI -Italian Sports Center”, but for some time Franco has been working to obtain the official membership of the “FIGC — Italian Football Federation”, at least for players on a loan to other local teams. “But with the Security Decree our players will no longer be able to play sports, and this team could cease to exist any day now. Instead, with an official recognition by the FIGC, they could be registered with the team where they play,” says Franco.

Until now, the Africa Academy has managed to survive by self-financing through fundraisers, and a significant contribution has come from some shops by giving materials, such as football boots, towels and sweaters. However, the institutions remain absent, the municipality offered only its patronage.

To defend the goal, Antho* often found himself borrowing goalkeeping gloves from the team owning the football field where the Academy plays. The Africa Team also lacks a van to make transfers.

© Giacomo Sini

On the Facebook page of the club, there are people who write directly from Africa. Some, besides cheering for this “diasporic” team from far away, have expressed the desire to be able to wear that red shirt with the logo of the African continent one day. Although similar teams were founded in other parts of Italy, Africa Academy Calcio fits perfectly into the cosmopolitan tradition of Livorno.

In the only Italian city that has never known a “ghetto” in its story, it would be difficult for anyone to feel foreign.

*Names Changed for refugees’ security due to International Protection

Thanks to Hanne Van Regemortel for editing

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