This Italian Soccer Team Is Made Up Entirely of Refugees

They traveled unimaginable distances in search of a better life. Now, one inspiring sports club is helping them achieve just that

This Italian Soccer Team Is Made Up Entirely of Refugees

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.

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Coach Salvatore Lisciandrello (aka Toti) speaks to the team moments before a game.
Coach Salvatore Lisciandrello (aka Toti) speaks to the team moments before a game.
Two players stretch on the field before a game against the Oricola team.
Two players stretch on the field before a game against the Oricola team.

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.

Dominic, 26, from Nigeria, warms up with a blanket on his way to the bench. Dominic arrived in Italy six months ago, and says he was forced to leave his country for safety reasons. He recalls that when he was a child, his father often said that Rome was the most beautiful city in the world, and he imagined coming to the Vatican and seeing the art there with his own eyes.” I think that everyone would like to remain in their country of origin,” he says. ““We do not choose to be refugees. People often forget that.”
Dominic, 26, from Nigeria, warms up with a blanket on his way to the bench. Dominic arrived in Italy six months ago, and says he was forced to leave his country for safety reasons. He recalls that when he was a child, his father often said that Rome was the most beautiful city in the world, and he imagined coming to the Vatican and seeing the art there with his own eyes.” I think that everyone would like to remain in their country of origin,” he says. ““We do not choose to be refugees. People often forget that.”
L: With the help of a doctor named Giovanni, the athletes of Liberi Nantes are able to get free medical exams. R: Pictured here are players’ football league membership cards. The Italian league allows the Liberi Nantes team to compete in tournaments even though most of the players don’t have all the state identification documents normally required by the league.
L: With the help of a doctor named Giovanni, the athletes of Liberi Nantes are able to get free medical exams.
R: Pictured here are players’ football league membership cards. The Italian league allows the Liberi Nantes team to compete in tournaments even though most of the players don’t have all the state identification documents normally required by the league.
A player rests for a moment in the locker room.
A player rests for a moment in the locker room.

“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.

A player changes his boots in the locker room.
A player changes his shoes in the locker room.
Shower time
Players shower after practice.
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Players take a moment to pray in the locker rooms.
The coach Salvatore Lisciandrello (Toti) during workouts. Seek a balance between fun and concentration needed to play well seems to be the most important task of the team.
Coach Toti overseeing workouts.
Robel, 29, goalkeeper of the Liberi Nantes, in the house where he lives with Valentina. In less than three months they will give birth to a child.
Robel, 32, a goalkeeper for Liberi Nantes, in the house where he lives with his wife, Valentina. They are expecting their first child.
The changing rooms in the sports field "Giardinetti" in Rome.
The changing rooms at the Giardinetti sports field in Rome.
Clean uniforms still wet are lied in the sun before the game.
Clean uniforms are hung out to dry in the sun before a game.
The passion for football is not just know how to play football. Many African boys give a hand to the association Liberi Nantes to cleaning and organizing the football field XXV Aprile in Rome. Inouwa, 21. For two years in Italy, he comes from Togo, where he played in Asech team. He has four brothers and a four year old daughter who hopes to revisit as soon as will the dcumenti necessary to apply for asylum. He now lives in the reception center in Marcellina.
Many of the players volunteer with Liberi Nantes to help clean and maintain the XXV Aprile fields where they practice.
Robel, while training the new goalkeeper before the game against Vicovaro.
A player named Robel helps to coach Mohammed, a new goalkeeper, before a game against Vicavaro.
Soumah, 19 and Dominic, 20 applaud their fellow players off the bench.
Two players cheer from the bench during a game.
Some migrants players while warming themselves before a friendly match in the field of Pietralata.
Players warm themselves up before a home game.
A break in the game against Giardinetti Team
A player takes a water break during a game against Giardinetti.
Partita - Vicovaro
Players watch a game from the sidelines.
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Liberi Nantes players before a game against the Anticoli Corrado team.
A moment before going out on the pitch to play the game.
The team takes a moment in the locker rooms before a game.