ROME, Italy — “I am waiting for corruption,” jokes the referee as soon as he sees our team walk onto the soccer field beneath the ruins of an ancient Roman aqueduct.
He knows our group of jetlagged journalists and designers are going to need all the help we can to get in this match against a band of migrants and refugees who have come together in Italy from across the globe. Team Atletico Diritti includes players from Senegal, Ivory Coast, Mali, Morocco, Argentina, Brazil, Gambia and Cape Verde, and local Italian university students. Two local non-profits dedicated to migrants’ rights created Atletico to connect locals and migrants in the most Italian way: soccer.
We’ve come to Rome from around the world ourselves: dozens of journalists, web designers and data geeks thrown together for two weeks to seek innovative ways to cover and drive coverage of the European migration crisis under the banner of The 19 Million Project, sponsored by Fusion and Univision. Most of the time we’ve been talking about the refugees and migrants. But in this game, we are facing off against them.
Ten seconds into the game, two of their strikers manage to easily dribble past half of our team to score the first goal. Among Atletico Diritti’s standouts:
Saebou, 32, arrived in Italy from Guinea-Bissau after a journey that took him across Africa, up through war-torn Libya, and then to Malta by rickety boat. His favorite player is Real Madrid maestro Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s been playing the game since he was a boy and feels a bit closer to home now that he’s in a league in Italy.
Abdul, 28, from Senegal watches the beating unfold from the sidelines with his friend Bai, 32, also from Senegal. Abdul has some suggestions on how our team could do better. “They’re not training together, that’s the problem,” he says, adding insult to injury by noting this is probably the easiest game they’ve ever played.
Bai and Abdul say they left Senegal for Europe because although it’s relatively stable politically, they found it hard to make a living there. Coming from the former French colony, both spoke French, but they came to Italy instead because the job prospects seemed better. Finding work wasn’t easy, they say, but they’re both working now. And Bai says it took him just one month to learn Italian. Most of the Atletico players are undocumented, some are trying to get work visas, others are applying for asylum.
For player Ousmane, 19, who is fast as hell, it’s been a weekly lifeline as he struggles with work permits and clarifying his immigration status in Italy. He’s from Mali and left because of the civil war that devastated his country in 2012. He’s been turned down after applying for refugee status once, he told us, but he’s applying for a residency permit through his lawyer now.
“Living in Rome is quite hard,” he said before replacing one of his teammates on the field and scoring a few goals.
Twenty minutes into the match, many of the beer-belly journalists are exhausted and trying hard not to puke. Our opponents are faster, stronger, taller, and they leave most of us biting the dust.
(They are also swift and nimble off the field, moving quickly to get the cellphone numbers of some of our female colleagues.)
All we can do is watch as the score reaches a tragic 10 - 0. They’ve crossed North Africa, the Mediterranean, Europe, entire oceans; the endurance shows.
One minute before the game ends, the referee calls out a penalty in our favor. This is our chance to walk away with some honor. We miss it. But there’s still a celebration inside the locker room. Chants of olé, olé, olé, olé. There’s pizza and beers waiting for us, and we take a minute to reflect on what the refugee team has accomplished, apart from kicking our asses.
“Most of [the players] came here on boats, and they live in migrant residences, and they run into bureaucratic problems with documents,” says Susanna Marietti, National Coordinator of the nonprofit Antigone, which with another nonprofit, Progetto Diritti, sponsors Atletico Diritti. Marietti says the idea behind the team was to help change public opinion, “showing them not as detainees or ghetto migrants, but as soccer players.”
Marietti says she’s been spying on the soccer team’s Whatsapp group. “At the beginning they were like ‘Okay, we have training today at 7 pm’ but then it was like ‘ok I’ll pick you up at the metro station’ or ‘let’s grab pizza tomorrow, and then I’ll help you sort out your documents.’”
Slowly, the students, the migrants, and the refugees have become a family of sorts.
The team’s coach, Dominico Blassio, believes sport is a powerful thing. “In my personal life as well in my career as a coach, I’ve always chosen to have a social impact through soccer,” he said. “The idea of soccer is to teach them about freedom, dignity, and human rights for everyone.”
For now soccer is a much needed distraction and bonding exercise. But Blassio doesn’t want his team to get too comfortable kicking our ass and thinking they’ve got it made. He keeps shouting so his players run and come back to defend, he talks to them after the game and let’s them know it should have been 20 - 0. In the end, sweat and blood triumph skill and talent.
Blassio, who’s been a soccer coach for 25 years, knows the sport can be unforgiving. But if you’re hungry and stay hungry, you just might make it. But his players aren’t trying to become professional soccer players, so ultimately their measure of success will lie in their ability to quickly adapt to their host community. Perhaps, that will be the hardest game they'll ever play.
Photographs and footage by Rachel Schallom, Pedro Alvarez, Daniel Bachierri, Michael Berkman, Rafa Fernandez De Castro and Miguel Costa
Video editing by Anna Sterling and Pedro Alvarez