Afro-Napoli United is a social project set up to integrate refugees and fight racism through football. But in winning success on the pitch, has it compromised the ideals on which it was founded?

Afro-Napoli United is a social project set up to integrate refugees and fight racism through football. But in winning success on the pitch, has it compromised the ideals on which it was founded?

“The people who come here, we won’t send them away, whoever you are, you’re welcome to stay.”

This is not the kind of chant you would expect to find on the football terraces of Italy. Yet on the stands of Afro Napoli United, the hardcore group of supporters sing it with pride.

Viewed more as a social project than a football team, the Naples-based club presents itself as a community co-operative, established to fight racism and promote integration by drawing players from newly arrived refugees and mixing them with home-grown Neapolitan talent.

“We are political activists first and football fans second,” says Luigi Mballato, one of Afro Napoli’s Ultras who has been supporting the club since soon after it was founded in 2009.

“We are involved in politics and insurgent groups, we are activists, we do more than anti-racism work, anything that is a ‘social’ issue. We have lots of social problems here and we want to work to resolve them.”

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Unlike most other clubs, these die-hard supporters rally around an idea rather than a place. “For us, the location is not important,” another fan says. “Afro Napoli is not the team of the local area, it’s a team that expresses a certain type of thinking. We are a group from different parts of Naples, and we are involved in politics. Fundamentally, we are a group who support Afro Napoli not because we are from a certain area, but because of the ideas behind it.”

The majority of fans have a history of social activism – including working to improve access to housing and workers’ rights – but have been drawn to Afro Napoli’s fight against racism as the most pressing and divisive issue facing Italy today.

600,000 people are estimated to have arrived by boat across the Mediterranean since the migrant crisis began five years ago, with as many as half a million believed to still be in the country. The vast majority of these are young men from sub-Saharan Africa, drawn to Europe in search of a better life and the promise of making it good in the glamorous world of European football.

One of these is Omar Gaye, who arrived in Italy two years ago after a nine-month trek from Gambia across North Africa. He spent a further four months in Tripoli waiting for a ship to Europe and was lucky to survive the crossing after the engine of his tiny fibre boat, carrying 175 people, broke down in the middle of the ocean.

His uncle, who had travelled with him through Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and onto Libya, was not so fortunate. “The first time we were coming to Italy we had a problem at sea so they killed many people and took others to prison. I don’t know if they killed my uncle or they took him to prison but still now I don’t hear from him – so I fear the worst.”

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But, Gaye says, it was a risk worth taking. “The journey here was very dangerous but to be a professional football player you have to risk much and sacrifice everything.”

It was Afro Napoli that helped him secure the documents he needed to play. The club also found him a place at a welcome centre where he lives with other players and gave him a small monthly stipend.

“I have one belief that I can make it,” he says. “I don’t have someone who can help me so I put all my money, my mind and effort into football.”

For Afro Napoli President Antonio Gargiulo, the club’s badge symbolises this sense of history and place, of collective identity, and left-wing idealism. A lion bestriding the symbol of Naples represents “the merging of two worlds and two realities – to bring together into one.”

“We are political – because everything is political,” he says. “We make politics real – [something] that you can touch… Our success shows how integration works, that these people are not a drain on society but a source of strength.”

Francesco Fasano, one of the club’s founders and vice-president, believes this mix is crucial to the success of the team, both on the pitch and in fulfilling its wider social objectives.

“Once word got out, we wanted to involve people from everywhere,” he says, “because if you do something with only immigrants you will create discrimination not the possibility of integration. That is why it is so important that in the team there are Italians and refugees.”

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It is for this reason that Abdoulie Camara was first drawn to the club. His journey from Gambia took him through Mali and across the desert to Libya where, like Omar, he waited months for a boat across the Mediterranean. He thanks God for saving him from the sea during a four-hour boat journey that cost him 30,000 Gambian dalasis (around £500)

“The difference between Afro Napoli and other refugee teams is that when you talk about Afro, it means African while Napoli means Neapolitan. So they divide equally – a team that is fighting against racism where there are no blacks and whites – just players.”

He attributes this positive atmosphere to the top-down support offered by the president and says he hopes it will one day enable him to play football in England.

“My cousin has been in Tottenham for 22 years. To go to England is not easy – but that is my target. It’s hard – it takes 36,000 euros, you need money to get a visa. In Italy, I have all the necessary documents but these are refugee documents, not citizenship, which give me two years residency.”

Before every match, the referee will inspect every player to make sure they have the correct documentation. The problem for many players is obtaining residency permits which allow them the right to remain in Italy and be formally registered to play football.

Both fans and Afro Napoli officials have lobbied hard to change the strict laws governing who can and cannot play, but one of the biggest obstacles remains that many have no permanent address. In a bid to address this, the club looks to house players together in centres in the heart of the city. It is here that Senegalese players mix with those from Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, Tunisia and Cape Verde as well as newer arrivals from Sri Lanka and South America.

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This relationship is often reciprocal. Welcome centres regularly bus in newly arrived refugees to watch Afro Napoli games, making up a large proportion of their support. Some also act as an unofficial scouting network for young players looking to join a team.

Aniello Langella runs a welcome centre on the outskirts of Naples, in the flat he shares with his mother. It is small by most standards, catering for just 12 people at any one time. It is supposed to be female-only but because of the surge in refugees arriving in Naples, it has now become mixed.

He describes how the system works; how he gets paid per immigrant per day through a secondary organisation which in turn draws its funding from the state.

Aniello, who used to run an all-refugee football team but quit after the players drew increasingly hostile reactions from other teams and now scouts players for Afro Napoli, says this lack of accountability can leave the system open to exploitation.

“For me, I don’t want the ship in the sea – for me, the immigrant is a patient,” he says. “[But] for some it is a business. For these people – the more migrants in the sea, the more money they make. If I treated it like a business I would take more than 12 people – because for me I could take 20 people. I want a small camp, it is better for me and for the immigrant.”

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Italian football has long had a troubled relationship with racism, but over the past few years, this has spilled into the everyday, fuelled by the migrant crisis which has driven the divisive anti-immigrant rhetoric of far-right populists such as former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and the northern neo-fascist League. The language of the street has, in effect, become that of the terraces, deployed by those in power to devastating effect.

On June 10, less than two weeks after taking office in a new coalition government, Italy’s interior minister and leader of the League, Matteo Salvini, announced that all southern Italian ports would now be closed to rescue ships carrying refugees. “From today, Italy will also start to say no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration,” he wrote on Facebook.

For all those associated with the club, these are worrying times. “We are a little bit afraid about the current situation,” says Guido Boldoni, who manages the second team. He believes that for every 10 refugees currently allowed entry into Italy, Salvini and the new government will deny residency status to seven of them. “He can return them to Africa, it could be a possibility.”

This growing hostility led to an exodus of players leaving Italy in the run-up to April’s election, with an increasing number of immigrants choosing to make the journey north to France, Holland or Germany, where they believe they will be more welcome.

“This is a cultural problem in which Italians fundamentally don’t accept the multi-ethnic society,” says Boldoni, adding that while Afro Napoli has received plenty of plaudits from abroad, within Italy there has been far less support and even open hostility towards the project.

But if the new government’s anti-immigration policies present a threat outside of the club’s control, then its desire for success on the pitch offers a more fundamental challenge to Afro Napoli’s founding principles.

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Ultra fan Luigi Mballtao sets out the dilemma like this: “For me, the project, the integration between immigrants and Neapolitans is the most important – but it is also true that in soccer when you win, it is better. When you win other people look at you, when you win journalists speak about you, write about you. If you don’t win anything then nobody cares about you.”

This new approach appears to be paying dividends, with Afro Napoli topping its league this season and winning promotion to the Excellenza division, one below Serie D. Some, however, are less enamoured at this trade-off.

“If you want to play high you have to spend money, and when you spend money it changes you,” says another of the club’s founders and its first captain, Giuseppe ‘Pino’ De Rossa.

“In the past, we were just all old friends without money, and now we have money but perhaps fewer friends,” he adds. “We could decide our own future but now we rely on others – this is the choice… They decided to follow the money but we still believe in the idea.”

“Afro Napoli is about, ‘You call me, I help you’. Friendship without conditions, not only money; helping translate, helping out in the kitchen, help with life – like a small family – friends, cousins and brothers.”

While this transition is clearly evident in the growing imbalance between the number of Italian and refugee players, you can also track the change in the club through the shifting makeup of its fans, Pino says. “Before the supporters were all black. Five years ago they were only Senegal, Nigeria and Cameroon – 90 per cent Africans, now there are a lot of Italian people.”

While he says this diversity is a good thing, “the change in the colour of our supporters shows the change in the path of our idea.”

When you talk to fans and those at the club the ambition is clear – to make Afro Napoli the second team in Naples. On its current trajectory, it could well do this. But facing the prospect of an overtly anti-immigrant government it must make a fundamental choice: whether to prioritise success on the pitch for the sake of its principles – or return to its roots and defend the ideals on which it was founded and continues to proclaim.

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