On the island of Sardinia, asylum seekers rebuild their lives on the football pitch.
SASSARI — The 11 asylum seekers who make up this multiethnic team have so far played just one official game, but they have already made Italian sporting history. "Pagi" is the first soccer team in Italy entirely composed of migrants seeking political asylum. Each one of them says they arrived in Italy by braving the waters of the Mediterranean to reach Europe. Now they live in Sassari, a mid-sized city in Sardinia, an island they had never even heard of before winding up here.
The team's captain is a 23-year-old whose life was at risk before fleeing his homeland of Togo. "I was accused of causing a car accident in which two people died, and their relatives decided to kill me," he says.
Jeffrey Omonigho, the team's Nigerian goalkeeper, had been living on the run for years. "My family is opposed to the government," he explains. "My father was murdered and my fate there was already sealed."
Pagi's potential star striker is Collins, a 26-year-old with a contagious smile. His daughter, Josephine, was born in Sassari, and he hopes to stay here and build their future together.
The team's adventure in the Sardinian second-level league, which is the eighth division overall of Italian soccer, began with a 3-0 loss last month. In order for Andrew, Victory, Ali, Baba, Osa and their teammates to take to the field, the Italian soccer federation (FIGC) had to provide them with an exemption from the regulation that each team may not field more than two non-European Union citizens.
"At first we thought of doing the opposite, with two Italian players in a team of foreign players, but then the FIGC allowed us to form an all-migrant team," says Pierpaolo Cermelli, the team's president, who also runs a local community center that hosts 300 migrants. The team's manager is Mauro Fanti, an ex-goalkeeper who is working hard to teach the players the fundamentals of tactical play. "They're all enthusiastic, but they don't know the rules of the game," he says. "Winning requires a certain technique as well. We're working on this."
Home games and training sessions are held at a field in the outskirts of the city, not far from the former juvenile court, since transformed into a housing center for refugees. Compared to the town of Mortara in northern Italy where the mayor refused to let migrants play soccer on a city public field, Sassari seems like another planet: The players train every morning, and in the afternoons they play short games in the center's courtyard.
Looking for sponsors
There are still 30 players on the team, as selecting a starting eleven has proven quite difficult. The team still has no sponsors, though the suppliers have given special discounts. Otherwise all expenses are paid by the cooperative that runs the refugee center.
"Every time there's a soccer match on TV, our cafeteria turns into a stadium, so we came up with this idea," says Fabiana Denurra, the cooperative's president. "The young men are waiting for a response to their asylum requests and they don't have much to do while they wait. They can't legally work, so we thought forming a soccer team would be a good pastime and a great way to integrate them."
Jallow Alagi, 24, hails from Nigeria. On the pitch he's a striker, but off it he's an interpreter who helps bring calm to the locker room. Dribbling isn't his strong suit, but he is the wise young man of the Pagi soccer team. "Here we finally understand what it means for everyone to be equal," he says. "Now all of Africa is cheering for us."