A new project promoted by the Italian Lega Pro aims to bring refugees and local communities together through sports. The Integration League is promoted by UNHCR and Project School and is co-funded by the European Union. Matches are slated to begin in January.
The tournament will be a mixed one, with local citizens and refugees, asylum seekers, holders of subsidiary and temporary protection, according to organizers.
Eight football clubs of Lega Pro are taking part: Ancona, Fidelis Andria, Cesena, Feralpisalò, Virtus Francavilla, Monopoli, Potenza, and Reggiana.
Tournament and side activities
The project calls for the formation of eight teams of eight Italian nationals and eight refugees, asylum seekers, and/or holders of subsidiary and temporary protection.
The teams will reportedly be all-male, made up of residents of the cities of the Lega Pro clubs taking part. They will train for five months in facilities made available by the clubs and later compete against each other in a 15-match tournament, with finals in one of Italy's major stadiums, according to organizers.
In addition, while the teams are being formed and trained, several side activities will be held for educational purposes and awareness raising involving local institutions, youth sports centers, and schools.
"When we think of refugees, we tend to think of their needs in terms of security, food, lodgings, healthcare, etc. This is obviously true. However, we cannot neglect other aspects that might not be, strictly speaking, 'life-saving' but which certainly change" lives, said Chiara Cardoletti of the UNHCR in Italy.
"Being able to play a sport like football alongside the local community is indubitably one of these. We are pleased to be able to support Lega Pro in the implementation of this project, which will help refugees create new friendships and feel safe and welcomed."
Lega Pro calls football 'new model of integration'
"I am especially proud of this project because it highlights, once more, the extraordinary capabilities of the clubs of Serie C to be close to the territory and to meet social needs," said Lega Pro chairman Francesco Ghirelli.
"Today we are inaugurating a new model of integration that uses football as a vehicle helping to give a sense of normality especially to those experiencing difficult conditions," he continued. "I hope that, through this project, communities can rediscover a way to add value to relations between citizens and those fleeing crises. Football puts people at the center."
"In Europe, in the past few years initiatives have multiplied that adopt football as a tool to break down stereotypes of all types," said Antonio Dell'Atti, co-founder of Project School.
"With Integration League, we are bringing to Italy an innovative project in which the most popular sport in the world becomes a strategic key to create a competitive context to show those following the tournament that the color of the jerseys is the only true difference between those going down onto the pitch," he added.