Sporting Locri, a futsal team which competes in Italy’s top Serie A league, looked set to close last month after its president received anonymous messages threatening both his toddler and the club.
But on Sunday the players jogged out onto the hardcourt in the stadium in Locri in their burgundy and whites chanting “I’ll play!” to crowds of cheering fans in the stands.
Futsal is the increasingly popular brand of five-a-side indoor football — and the latest version of Italy’s favourite sport to be tainted by the country’s shadowy underworld.
Sporting Locri celebrated a moral victory after losing to opponents Lazio 3-2 in a match which saw fans from both sides roar support for the home team.
“I don’t know anything specific about the threat, I only know I’m here to play,” said player Fernandez Beita, 31, shrugging off the defeat after “a game well played”.
Club President Ferdinando Armeni bowed to pressure and resigned before Christmas, but the capitulation sparked a national outcry, with the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) stepping in to insist the team must play on.
– ‘Playing outside the rules’ –
The incident threw the spotlight on the knotty role of sport in Calabria, a region in the grip of the richest and most powerful syndicate in Europe and which in 2014 had the highest level of unemployment in Italy, at 23.4 percent.
With the club headed up temporarily by the town’s mayor, the match was broadcast live on national television, with FIGC president Carlo Tavecchio in the stands.
Italian prosecutors have launched a probe into the messages ordering Armeni to shut down the club, including a note left on the car-seat of his three-year-old daughter.
“It could have been a big boss or the smallest criminal, but in any case, a threat is a threat,” Armeni told AFP.
“Going after children means you’re playing outside the rules. And I don’t know who I’m playing against. Maybe nothing will happen, but if this crazy person does something… I won’t take the risk,” he said.
The outgoing president, whose tyres were also slashed, said he had no idea who was behind the threats — and denied press rumours that the real reason he resigned was because the club had finance problems after over-investing in players from Spain.
“The accounts are in order, Sporting Locri doesn’t have any debts,” he said.
Top anti-mafia prosecutor Nicola Gratteri, who has lived under armed guard for the past 26 years after death threats and several attempts on his life, told AFP “the team absolutely must not close its doors”.
“They not only have to keep playing but they have to be given psychological assistance because I can only imagine the stress these poor girls have been put under,” he said, adding that the team was “a source of pride for this region”.
– ”Ndrangheta seeks money, power’ –
It was not clear who had made the threats or why, with Italian media speculating that the club may have been targeted by a bitter ex-president or for financially-motivated reasons.
Football is a honeypot for the mafia, which makes vast profits from match-fixing as well as using the sport as a means to recycle ill-gotten gains.
It has proved especially useful for the ‘Ndrangheta, which is credited with controlling much of the world’s cocaine trade.
In May, 50 people were arrested in a vast sting which uncovered match-rigging by the mobster syndicate at some 30 football clubs, involving football players, coaches and club owners.
But Gratteri, 57, interviewed at the heavily-guarded police headquarters in the southern-Italian city, said he did not believe the ‘Ndrangheta was behind the Sporting Locri threats.
“The ‘Ndrangheta is present where there’s money to be had and power to be had. In this case, there’s no money, no power,” he said.
“The ‘Ndrangheta is something else: the ‘Ndrangheta does not slash tyres, the ‘Ndrangheta shoots, sets cars alight, causes serious harm”.