African asylum seekers in Sicily dream of soccer glory

Tue Feb 11, 2014 5:35am EST
 
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By Steve Scherer

MINEO, Sicily (Reuters) - 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 center 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.   Continued...

 
African migrants, who are members of the ASD Mineo soccer team, celebrate after scoring against Massiminiana in the Sicilian village of Mineo January 26, 2014. REUTERS/Tony Gentile