ORISTANO — Club scouts and retired players from across Italy have come to this town on the Italian island of Sardinia to find new soccer talent among recently arrived African migrants. They offer their services to the migrants so that one day they might have a shot at Italy's top professional league, the Serie A. These young men, who live in reception centers across the island, hope to follow their dreams. But they also seek something far simpler: a salary and a chance to live in their adopted country.
Some of the players came to the trials in Oristano wearing flip-flops, so the organizers give them shoes and cleats. Unfortunately for 25-year-old Ahmed Ayoub, there weren't any in his size.
Ayoub may be the biggest talent in this group of refugees but he doesn't have proper shoes to play soccer. He recently arrived from Libya and displayed his prowess on the pitch, wearing tennis sneakers donated by local volunteers so he could take part in the soccer tryouts. But courage and good fortune are not enough to make it in Italian soccer. Ayoub will need serious cleats soon.
Ayoub and his fellow hopefuls share similar tales of fleeing war, torture, and imprisonment to make the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea in rickety rafts or old fishing boats, seeking a new life in Europe without the fear of persecution or death. "Almost all of them arrive in Italy with plans to become soccer players as Italy is still seen as the homeland of soccer," says Massimo Castorino, a local soccer coach. "As soon as they put on a jersey and get on the pitch, even for amateur tournaments, they immediately send photos to their friends back home and contribute to the false idea that it's easy to become a professional player in Italy."
Yosuf, a 21-year-old from the Ivory Coast, has declared himself a midfielder. "I have to give my best today, I'm playing for my future," he says. "If I manage to get into a team, it'll change my life."
Hamadou Saho, 29, hails from Gambia and, according to scouts from Italy's professional soccer federation FIGC, he could have a future as a good striker. "Soccer is a unifying sport and it could be our chance of realizing our dreams," he says.
Inside the locker rooms at FIGC's training center in Oristano, there's an atmosphere akin to that before a World Cup final. A mixture of tension and intense concentration pervades the room, where almost 100 young players gather to showcase their talent. First, they line up to get registered, then split up into informal teams for the upcoming tournament. But this isn't your everyday kick-around — it's truly a lottery that could change the lives of these men forever.
Before the referee blows his whistle to start the first game, players hug each other and perform other pre-match rituals, taking selfies and kneeling to kiss the grass on the pitch. "Soccer is their favorite activity and we want to collaborate with them to cultivate their dreams," says Andrea Belfiori, head of a social cooperative in the Sardinian capital of Cagliari. "But not all of them have the right skills to become professional."
Members of Cagliari's historic 1969-70 team, which took home the club's only Italian championship, sit on the sidelines to scout for bright young talent. Giuseppe Tomasini, a defender on that team, notes the migrants' jersey numbers, names, and characteristics of the promising players on the pitch. "The first objective of this initiative is to help these kids who have already suffered greatly," he says. "In any case, I'm certain we'll discover a few promising stars today."
Mario Beretta, the director of youth development for the Cagliari club and a former manager of several Serie A teams including Torino and Parma, is also here to lend his support. "Talented players aren't to be found only in soccer academies. Sometimes they also arrive on dinghies," he says. "We've already signed on a refugee from Togo but the most beautiful thing about this is that sport is playing a role as a form of real integration."
The dream of playing in the Serie A or in Europe's venerated Champions League is surely not within reach for most of these promising young men, but the FIGC and the region of Sardinia have given themselves other, less ambitious objectives. The local teams of small villages and urban peripheries emptied by demographic change have struggled to find enough players to field a squad as young Sardinians leave the island to look for work elsewhere in the country.
Omar, 18, has been training with A.S.D. Selargius, based in a small town near Cagliari. "I came here from Gambia and if it wasn't for the paperwork I could already be playing in the Promozione (Italy's sixth division) But I really believe I can make this career and I won't give up on it."
How far could he go? Omar smiles: "from Selargius to Barcelona — why not?"