Football has long been known as the beautiful game, but in these days of tycoon chairmen, global merchandising and badly-behaved, millionaire players, its beauty can seem little more than skin deep. To a group of young immigrants and refugees who train together in Rome though, the sport still has the power to unite, inspire and make a real difference.
There are currently around 15 members of the multi-ethnic Senza Frontiere squad, mostly homeless asylum seekers from war-torn countries in Africa who hear about the team from each other or from the Catholic relief agency Caritas, which they turn to for medical or legal help. While they wait, often for up to 18 months, to hear whether their applications to stay in Italy have been successful, the players are unable to work unless they pick up odd jobs in the black economy, and they have little to give their lives focus. Many spend their nights sleeping rough at Termini station, where as young foreigners they are horribly vulnerable to attacks.
Danilo Zennaro, the man who runs the team and wages a constant battle to find support for his players, says the fundamental motivation is to help those who no longer have a home or family around them to feel part of something. And with the opportunity to enjoy a hot shower at the end of each twice-weekly training session, he adds, Its also a good chance for them to wash. That sounds stupid, but its true.
The Senza Frontiere project was launched in Rome in 1998 by the Comunit di S. Egidio to bring together young immigrants, but was wound up in 2001 because of a lack of sponsors. Zennaro, 34, who works for the Vaticans Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, heard about the team in early 2002 through a friend at S. Egidio. He decided to re-launch the squad, and with no funding available from S. Egidio itself, persuaded Nigerian cardinal Francis Arinze to dip into his own pocket to finance hiring a pitch each week. From May 2002, the Senza Frontiere team was back in training.
I like the friendship, says Jean, a 25-year-old who arrived in Italy a year ago after fleeing Liberia in west Africa, where a civil war has been fought for nearly 14 years. Anybody can play, black or white, no matter who you are or where youre from. Theres a very
Jean, who plays as a striker, is still waiting to hear whether he will be allowed to remain in Italy. He has been given a place to stay at a care centre in Casilino, but has problems attending the training sessions in Boccea to the west of the Vatican. Its difficult because I have no money for the metro and sometimes I get fined, but its worth it to come here,
Franklin is a 19-year-old from Cameroon who plays as a defensive midfielder and often misses meals to attend training, as the centre in which he has a bed only provides food at set times.
I have to choose between dinner and football, and I choose football, he laughs cheerfully.
Ike, 21 and another striker, came to Italy from Nigeria five months ago and enjoys the social aspect of the Senza Frontiere squad. Its a very friendly team, he says. I love to play with them. As long as Im here, Ill play with them.
Zennaro was hoping that his squad would be given the chance to take part in the Palio di Roma, a friendly, five-a-side football tournament bringing together players from every corner of the city which kicked off on 10 November. I heard three of the players talking (about the Palio), and for them its really important to play with people who have a normal life, he says.
The rules of the tournament state that at least two players in each squad must be resident in the neighbourhood the team represents, a regulation that obviously precludes the participation of a group of homeless immigrants. However, hopes were raised when the president of the citys first municipio, Giuseppe Lobefaro, offered Senza Frontiere a sporting residence which would enable them to take part. Lobefaro contacted the organisers of the tournament, who agreed to reserve a place for the multi-ethnic squad, but it was subsequently withdrawn on the grounds that it was impossible to check whether members of the team had been professional players.
Zennaro was infuriated by the decision. This pretext of professionalism is a load of rubbish, he says. How can you talk about professionalism, as we understand it, for countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Congo?
Now, however, the Senza Frontiere team is taking part in an 11-a-side tournament run by the Centro Sportivo Italiano, which has granted the squad special terms for the various payments involved. The provincial Joy Cup, which Senza Frontiere won in 1998 and 1999, kicked off on 12 November and finishes next May, with the finalists going through to a national phase.
The tournament, however, still costs money; there is a fee for registering each player so that they are covered by insurance, and the pitches on which Senza Frontiere play their home games must be hired. These expenses add to the ongoing problem of finding money for equipment and for players to be given check-ups by a sports doctor. This year the squad has received some financial help from the Catholic association Cavalieri di Colombo, and has been pledged some boots by Demetrio Albertini, the former Milan star who now plays for Lazio. Zennaro says the team was also promised 10,000 by Rome city council months ago but has not yet seen a cent. The council doesnt understand what it means to sleep at the station. It doesnt think another month or two makes any difference, he sighs.
Despite the constant struggle to keep it going, Zennaro says running the Senza Frontiere squad is a pleasure, and makes him appreciate how lucky he is. And for goalkeeper Bertrand, 28, a former politician in Cameroon who was forced to flee the country six months ago because his life was threatened, the chance to take part in the beautiful game offers a respite from the harsh reality of his new life.
I come every week, even though its difficult, he says. It helps me forget my problems.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
* 10 will buy a football
* 40 will buy a pair of football boots
* 50 will pay for a check-up by a sports doctor
* 60 will buy a football kit, including shirt,
shorts, socks and tracksuit.
If you would like more information or to make a donation,
contact Danilo Zennaro, Senza Frontiere, Via G. Venezian 17/f,
tel. 065883869-339 / 2182821,
e-mail: email@example.com, www.senzafrontiere.org.
Picture: Members of the Senza Frontiere squad prepare for a training session.