Home Youth jerseys ‘They burned down our clubhouse’… but the Sicilian rugby team won’t let the mafia win | Mafia

‘They burned down our clubhouse’… but the Sicilian rugby team won’t let the mafia win | Mafia

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gLoria Mertoli’s shift is over when the first light of dawn shines on the posts of a rugby pitch in the Librino district of Catania, stronghold of the Cosa Nostra, the dreaded Sicilian mafia. Since gangsters burned down the team’s clubhouse and bus, she and other players from the women’s rugby team, Briganti Librino RUFC, have taken turns staying after evening training and keeping the area at night.

Ever since the club began working to remove children – easy targets for Mafia recruitment – ​​from the streets of Librino, the clans have tried to bankrupt it. “Librino is a complex neighborhood,” said Piero Mancuso, one of the founders of Briganti, to the Observer. “We knew it wouldn’t be easy to work here. These criminal attacks threatened to destroy everything we had achieved in recent years. But if I look at what we have done so far, I can say that these attacks have made us stronger.

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The story of Catania’s small Briganti side made headlines around the world and received expressions of solidarity from England’s national rugby union coach, Eddie Jones, as well as former England captain Bill Beaumont . Even World Rugby has expressed support for the team. Last year, the Bolton amateur rugby team, with 150 years of heritage, entered into a partnership with the Sicilian team.

“For the people of Librino, rugby offers an alternative to a potential life as a criminal on the streets,” Bolton chairman Mark Brocklehurst said in a note last year. “If we can help Briganti by offering a beacon of hope, then amazing things can happen. What better motivation for Bolton to get involved?”

The Briganti, which run several junior and senior teams, as well as women’s teams in several age groups, were established in Librino in 2006, with the aim of doing more than just playing rugby.

“We built a pavilion with a small library, a café and a kitchen,” explains Mancuso. “We offered extracurricular activities to the poorest children in the neighborhood and we started to teach them the noble sport of rugby, which is based on respect for the opponent and the rules.

The Briganti club’s under-17 team during training. Photography: Alessio Mamo/The Observer

Librino, with a population of 70,000, is not an average neighborhood. School dropout rates reach the highest levels in Europe, and the mafia has used the area as a hub for drug trafficking and stockpiling, which is controlled by the Cursoti Milanesi and Cappello de Cosa Nostra clans. Here, crime is seen as a path to financial success, as well as respect within the community.

As in other disadvantaged neighborhoods in southern Italy, few institutions exist to offer a credible alternative to the children of these neighborhoods. And young people are a prime target for mafia recruitment. In 2017, a police investigation revealed the use of a six-year-old boy as a drug dealer. In such a context, educating children about legality and respect for others is viewed with suspicion by mobsters.

On January 11, 2018 at midnight, a fire broke out at the Briganti clubhouse. Books, footballs, coffee, computers, shirts and trophies were all burned beyond recognition.

“At least 10 years of memories have gone up in smoke,” Mancuso says. “It was devastating.”

The clubhouse was rebuilt within months, thanks to private donations, but thefts and bombings continued. Last April, someone broke down the club’s iron door and stole equipment. A few weeks later, on March 16, 2021, the team bus was set on fire.

“All my life I’ve heard people talk about the Mafia, but when you face it it’s a whole different story,” said Mertoli, 22, captain of the women’s rugby team. “When they set fire to our bus, it was as if they had set fire to my own house. You find yourself in a difficult situation because you don’t know how to handle it. You don’t know if you should go to the police. You really don’t know how to react.

Since that day, Mertoli and her teammates take turns at night to watch the locker rooms, the new clubhouse and the library.

“We’re here all night,” Mertoli said. “We order food and pass the time playing Risk or Monopoly. If we hear a noise, we grab our clubs.

The Briganti clubhouse library.
The Briganti clubhouse library. Photography: Alessio Mamo/The Observer

Claudio Fava, president of the Sicilian anti-mafia commission and son of the late journalist Giuseppe, killed in Catania by the mafia in 1984, says that “anyone who offers a different life to children born and raised in these mafia strongholds are bullet breakers” . for mafia bosses.

Fava compares terrorist acts against the Briganti to the assassination of Father Pino Puglisi in Palermo, a priest shot dead by Mafia hitmen in 1993 after challenging the organization’s control over one of the toughest neighborhoods from the city. The parish priest had fought for the construction of a football field to get young people off the streets.

“In these neighborhoods, offering a way out for these children, through school or sport, is an affront to the bosses,” Fava added.

But life, like rugby, is a game of resilience, and anything can change the outcome of a match, right down to the last minute. Thanks to international support and donations, the Briganti have succeeded in christening their new rugby ground, officially inaugurated last Friday.

“We rose from the ashes of the fire that these people started,” Mancuso says.

“And if they come back to bother us, we will be there,” adds Mertoli. “And like in a rugby match, we won’t back down an inch. We will continue to defend ourselves, because this is our home.