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Europe’s Refugee Soccer Teams

These ‘football’ clubs are opening their arms (and feet) to otherwise isolated refugees.

Rome’s Liberi Nantes, via Twitter

Liberi Nantes means “free sailor” in Latin, but the soccer team’s name does not refer to the professional seamen who live in its eastern Rome neighborhood. The nantes in question are the players themselves: Gambians, Malians, Togoloese, and Ivorians (from the Ivory Coast) who traveled at their peril over the Mediterranean to reach Italy. The players for Liberi Nantes—and a few other soccer teams scattered throughout Europe—are all refugees.


“Our logo is a sea turtle that represents the right of everybody to travel,” explains Daniela Conti, the president of the football club.

Quartz’s Aamna Mohdin reported last week on the European football (soccer) clubs like Liberi Nantes creating special programs for newly arrived asylum seekers. Refugees who live in asylum centers for months or years while filing paperwork are often forbidden from working in their new countries without permits. Soccer is an important diversion—and support network.

“We are in the center, we’re living [with] so many peoples, but only me goes to play football,” Mohamed Singhateh, a Gambian refugee living in Rome, told The Guardian. “[T]he rest [of the refugees], they have nothing do because they can’t find a job. I think if you find something like [Liberi Nantes], it will be better. …The only happiness I have mostly is when I went out to play football.”

The team also offers languages classes to players, as well as other social opportunities, like hiking expeditions.

“I want to make [the players] understand that, if they want to help themselves in this difficult society, football is a way to understand how society works,” said coach Salvatore Lisciandrello. “If you have a job interview at 6, you have to be there 15 minutes before. I mean, it’s not just football.”

Liberi Nantes recruits from 60 asylum centers in the area, and about 200 men try out each season. Players are likely not on their way to international soccer glory—the team is in the Terza Categoria, the ninth and lowest tier of the Italian football league.

Liberi Nantes plays Serie A team AS Roma in an exhibition game earlier this month, via AS Roma

But the professionals are taking notice. Earlier this month, the Serie A team AS Roma played an exhibition game against the refugee team. The result: a 3-3 draw.

Other European refugee teams include Scotland’s United Glasgow FC (where native Scots and refugees play together); Germany’s FC Lampedusa; a team in Lyon, France, that includes former professional players from Africa and Eastern Europe; and Spain’s Atlético de Pinto.

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In all likelihood, demand for these refugee teams will only increase. Just this morning, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called for emergency talks on the EU’s growing refugee crisis. Member states received 395,000 new asylum applications in just the first half of 2015.

Correction: “Liberi Nantes” means “free sailor” in Latin, not in Italian, as previously stated.

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