Some dreams take years of hard work to achieve. Others require long, dangerous journeys, by sea or over land. In Rome, the football club Liberi Nantes cultivates dreams of both kinds. Founded in 2007 as a response to racism within the Italian football world, it is the country’s first sports team formed entirely of refugees and asylum seekers, competing in the “Terza Categoria,” the ninth level of the Italian football league system. The goal is to offer participants the chance to engage with the country they are trying to call home, as well as to connect with others who have escaped similar situations of war, poverty and persecution, often risking their lives to get here.
The Liberi Nantes organization also runs several “open” teams which play pick-up games, and they organize group hiking trips, touch rugby, and Italian lessons.
According to data collected by the UNHCR, an estimated 181,436 migrants crossed the Mediterranean to reach Italy in 2016 – an 18% increase from the year before. In January 2017 alone, despite dangerous weather conditions more than four thousand people have risked their lives to travel here by sea.
“Liberi” is the Italian word for “free,” and “Nantes” means “swimming” in Latin. The football team’s flag uses the colors of the United Nations, and the logo is a sea turtle, which represents every person’s right to travel. The team’s headquarters is at the XXV Aprile football field, in the heart of Rome’s Pietralata quarter, near many of the refugee centers.
Some players are talented athletes whose neighbors in their home villages came together and collected the funds necessary to enable them to follow their dream of playing football in a place here in Italy, where the sport is regarded almost like a religion. Some dream of signing with a professional football team or winning the league championships; others have more modest hopes of having a career or starting a family. For all those with pending asylum cases, the future is uncertain, and more or less out of their hands. In the meantime, they train together at Liberi Nantes, where they have a community, and where, together, they can forget about their problems for at least ninety minutes at a time.