Afro-Napoli: The Italian club levelling the playing field

Words by Callum Rice-Coates Illustration by Philippe Fenner
June 6, 2018
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It was the news everyone at Afro-Napoli was dreading. On June 1st, Italy’s new government was formed: a coalition made up of the populist, anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the anti-immigrant, hard-right League party.

There had been uncertainty, but in the end it was inevitable. The success of the League, whose rhetoric is patently xenophobic, comes at a time where right-wing parties are increasingly prominent throughout Europe. Their message, as confirmed by leader Matteo Salvini in Sicily on Sunday, is that undocumented migrants will soon be told to “pack their bags”.

The political situation is of particular concern to Afro-Napoli, an amateur Italian club whose ethos is one of inclusion. Formed in 2009 with the aim of combating discrimination and welcoming migrants, the club have enjoyed increasing levels of success both on and off the pitch. Last season, they won promotion from the Italian sixth tier. Some are beginning to take notice.

Players arrive at Afro-Napoli from across Africa: from Senegal, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Cape Verde, Niger and Tunisia. For many, it is an opportunity, a chance to make something of their lives in difficult circumstances.

Many arrive with nothing: they have fled poverty and malnutrition in search of a better life. They do not speak the language and, often, they are alone, young, in an unfamiliar place and without a job. Afro-Napoli welcome those who can demonstrate their footballing talent.

“I have always had a strong passion for football and I have always worked in the social sector, so I had the opportunity to meet many migrant African children,” Antonio Gargiulo, Afro-Napoli’s president, tells Tifo Football. “We started playing football together, weekly matches between friends, until we thought about creating a football team, a sports association for all the migrants living in Naples.

“The aim was to fight discrimination. On the pitch, it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, white or black; on the pitch we are all the same. We have the same possibilities, the same rules, the same opportunities. Unfortunately, in life, it is different.”

The importance of Afro-Napoli’s work goes beyond football. In Naples, a bustling metropolitan city in Italy’s south, progress has been made in changing the attitude towards migrants. Those working at the club, Gargiulo tells me, have seen evidence of local players beginning to realise that “they are guys just like all of us”.

Afro-Napoli’s team is not made up solely of migrants: some players are locals with disadvantaged backgrounds. Others come from South America or elsewhere in Italy. Diego Maradona’s son, Diego Maradona Jr, is also involved. “Diego is a serious boy and very intelligent,” says Garguilo. “He has sound principles and values that coincide with ours.”

“The aim was to fight discrimination. On the pitch, it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, white or black; on the pitch we are all the same. We have the same possibilities, the same rules, the same opportunities. Unfortunately, in life, it is different.” Antonio Gargiulo, President of Afro-Napoli

The focus, though, is on integration. It is a philosophy shared by everyone at the club: their passion is in helping people through the prism of football. But recent political developments have not gone unnoticed. Many of the migrants who now play for Afro-Napoli left their countries on boats, taking perilous journeys across the Mediterranean from North Africa. Salvini, the head of the League party, has vowed to reduce the numbers arriving in Italy, making it likely to become even more difficult for migrants to reach the coast.

“We will not step back in the face of these threats and we will not give up,” says Garguilo. “The political situation here is dramatic. The League assign all the blame for the country’s problems on migrants. The banks have caused Italy’s economic problems, certainly not migrants. It’s not really a good time.”

On the pitch, though, there has been welcome success. Guido Boldoni, a scout at the club, tells me that promotion from the sixth tier was “quite easy”, such was the strength of the squad. Boldoni is responsible for discovering talented footballers amongst the migrants who arrive every year. It is a job that requires a degree of ruthlessness, but one that has proved endlessly rewarding.

“My job is to care for the footballers who live in ‘centres for migrants’, kids who escape from countries like Gambia, Senegal, Mali in search of a better future,” Boldoni says. “We have created a network with managers of the centres and on social media, so we get requests constantly. Every month we receive video reports and then I organise auditions at our stadium to see the players. Since I started this adventure I have seen about 300 players. Not all are ready to play, of course, but our goal is to make them understand that they must have the right characteristics and a great spirit of sacrifice.”

One of those who impressed enough to earn a place in the first team is Kebba Jatta, a winger, 17-years-old, who left Gambia for Italy in 2016. When he arrived in Sicily, his life was “difficult”. He could not go to school or play football. He did not speak Italian and all that stretched ahead was uncertainty.

But, while playing for one of the teams put together by a migrant centre, Jatta caught Boldoni’s eye. “I am very grateful to the club,” Jatta says. “They gave me the chance to play and helped me improve. They helped me integrate.”

Jatta’s family remain in Gambia. Forging a successful career in football, progressing with Afro-Napoli, so that he can help them, is “the dream”, he says. “Afro-Napoli will one day play at professional level. I believe that.” When asked who the best players at the club are, he laughs. “All Afro-Napoli players are the best,” he replies.

Jatta is just one success story. There are numerous others. That is largely down to the work of Boldoni. For him, the person is just as important as the player. “I have always had great admiration for African culture,” he says. “This is an important project. It is really difficult, but the compliments and curiosity of people shows that we are on the right track.”

Boldoni, too, is concerned by the political situation. But, as with everyone else involved with Afro-Napoli, he has not intention of succumbing to Salvini’s divisive rhetoric. “We are worried but we go on our way and continue to build our project. We will not give up. I have always said that we are the St. Pauli of Italy: we represent a left-wing club with healthy and important values.

“We have a dream to become the second team in Naples. But the road is still long.”

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