By Umberto Bacchi
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Record numbers of migrants and refugees are set to join amateur soccer teams in Italy this year, as they seek to integrate in their new country by playing its favorite sport, local teams said ahead of the start of the 2016/2017 season.
Italy, on the frontline of Europe's migration crisis, hosts at least 130,000 people - mostly men from football-loving nations in Africa such as Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Gambia - in reception centers across the country, government figures show.
Last month it received more than 25,000 migrants, a 12 percent increase on the same period last year, according to EU border agency Frontex.
In recent years, charitable organizations have set up at least four teams of migrant players to help asylum seekers socialize and adapt as they go through a lengthy asylum process.
"As the numbers (of arrivals) grow we also expect to have more young men (then before)," said Francesco Giuzio, founder of Opti Poba, a migrant team in the southern region of Basilicata, one of thousands of amateur teams across Italy.
Giuzio said he was counting on having around 80 players this year. "We are the size of Inter Milan," he quipped.
Salvatore Lisciandrello, manager of Rome-based Liberi Nantes, said the team struggled to field 11 players when it was launched in 2007.
But with expectations that 250 asylum seekers will show up for open training sessions in the coming weeks, Lisciandrello is planning to create a second squad.
"Being unable to keep everyone is a defeat to us, but it's not easy to manage this numbers," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
DREAMS OF TOTTI
Francesco Montanino, who coaches Afro-Napoli United, a team of Italian and migrant players founded in Naples in 2009, said football played a powerful role in enabling people from different backgrounds to bond.
"You always play with one ball and the same set of rules and win as a team," he said.
But for others, it's the prospect of a lucrative contract with Serie A team that is the draw.
Many migrants in their teens or early twenties secretly hope to be spotted by talent scouts on Italy's provincial pitches and go on to become professional footballers, said Montanino.
"Italy is renowned for football around the world and many come here dreaming of Totti and Higuain," he said referring to the two Serie A strikers.
Few make it.
Over the past few years only two former Opti Poba players have been signed by lower division sides, where they earn only a few hundred euros a month, Giuzio said.
Dreams of a well-paid professional career in Europe also leave young boys exposed to the risk of trafficking, Lisciandrello of Liberi Nantes said.
Two years ago he trained a 16-year-old from Cameroon who had been abandoned by agents after being taken to Rome in exchange for about 5,000 euros ($5,600).
The boy was so talented that Lisciandrello said he put him in touch with Serie A side AS Roma, which is expected to sign him when he turns 18 in September.
Many others are less fortunate. Some 15,000 young players leave West Africa each year under false pretences, estimates the charity Foot Solidaire.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)