The small town of Locri, in the southern Calabria region of Italy, gets little sporting attention. On Sunday though it took center stage as its female 5-a-side football team, Sporting Locri, returned to the pitch, defying Mafia-style threats aimed at shutting down the club.
In December, the club’s president Ferdinando Armeni announced in a Facebook post that the team, one of the country’s best, would leave Italy’s top league Serie A, following intimidating messages that he and the vice president said they had received.
“It’s time to close Sporting Locri,” read the first threat — the milder of two he received.
The club initially ignored the threats, continuing to play until the end of December, when Armeni said he found his car tires slashed. And in the car he found a threat against his 3-year-old daughter.
“When I got that message, I lost my peace of mind,” Armeni told CNN. “I wasn’t in the mood to continue working on the project I had started five years ago and that, at the end of the day, was a hobby, a passion.”
The club had never received such intimidation, said Armeni, adding that he is now under the protective surveillance of the Italian police.
Once social media and news outlets spread the news, messages of indignation and solidarity poured in. The national female team’s captain, Patrizia Panico, even proposed a friendly match later in the season between Sporting Locri and the “azzurre,” as the national team is called.
A similar offer came from the female team of Italian lawmakers. Centro Sportivo Italiano, the Italian Sports Centre, organized a sports event on January 6, a public holiday. More than 500 people gathered in Locri under the slogan and hashtag #IoVadoAGiocareALocri (I go to play in Locri).
Following the uproar, the club, currently fifth in the championship, said it would return to the pitch on Sunday.
A criminal investigation was launched to identify the author of the threats. Although intimidation is often used by Italian Mafia clans, it is unclear whether or not ‘Ndrangheta — the name of the criminal network in the Calabria region — is behind the messages. Authorities think it unlikely.
“I hope, and think, that there isn’t ‘Ndrangheta behind the intimidation,” said Arturo Bova, president of the region’s anti-Mafia commission.
“‘Ndrangheta doesn’t send you letters,” he said. “It acts right away. Whether or not the Mafia is behind the intimidation, we are close to that community, whose image had been devastated by ‘Ndrangheta.”
Sunday’s match was broadcast on national television, and the Italian FA’s president, Carlo Tavecchio, attended along with politicians from different parties. After the match he vowed to help the team continue to play. “Sporting Locri will have a future,” he declared.
During the game, the hashtag #iogioco (I play) was a trending topic in Italy. It was an intense game, that Sporting Locri lost 3-2 to Lazio C5, currently second in the championship. Yet, as a final standing ovation from the supporters of both teams showed, by taking the field Sporting Locri had already won its most important game.
“We felt that the authorities, our fans and the city were supporting us,” said goalkeeper Alessia Modestia. “What happened put the team under pressure: At first we were a bit scared, but then we moved on. We are ready to do our best every Sunday.”