LOCRI, Italy (Reuters) - This seaside town in Italy's deep south has long been a hotbed for the Calabrian mafia, which uses threats and violence to extort virtually every businessman, from the pizzerias to the fishmongers.
But the 12 young women of the Sporting Locri soccer club refused to cave in to fear when the club president said he received threats from the mob to shut down the club or else. They took a stand and kept playing even when the president himself quit.
"It's time to close this Sporting Locri. Leave!" read one of the notes left on the car of then-President Ferdinando Armeni.
When Armeni announced the closure of the club just before Christmas and stepped down as president, the community of almost 13,000 people, backed by the mayor and national soccer authorities, rallied around the women and kept the team going.
Earlier this month a new president took over and this week a new coach and training staff were named.
"At first I was scared ... The mafia hurts people," Antonella Sabatino, 23, a striker and native of Locri, told Reuters.
"We stayed united to show that we are here and no one can destroy us, not the mafia, and not someone who says we can't play anymore."
It is not uncommon for Italy's mafias to control soccer clubs in their territory as a way to build local consensus and even mask extortion payments as club sponsorships. What is unusual is that the mob would want to shut down a team that is doing well, raising doubts about who was sending the threats.
Sporting Locri, formed in 2010, is in the top level of Italy's women's five-on-five league with top players on a salary, though most do it out of passion for the game.
"When the mafia strikes, it is much more subtle and effective," said Pierpaolo Romani, author of "Criminal Soccer" on the mafia's role in Italian soccer.
Romani said he doubted the Calabrian mafia, known as the 'Ndrangheta, was behind the fear campaign.
The local prosecutor is investigating and the former president has denied that he staged the affair, but for the moment the origin of the threats remains a mystery.
Sporting Locri remains defiant.
"This team is one of Locri's bright spots," said Sabatino. "We've received support and solidarity not only from Locri, but from around the world, and that makes us very happy."
Writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Gareth Jones