Opti Poba: Promoting refugee integration in Potenza through football
Football is frequently noted for its unifying qualities, as many of life’s more serious issues can be forgotten or even overcome by the simple pleasure of knocking a ball about.
Italy is frequently in the news as a key member of the European Union and a common landing point for refugees as they make the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better future.
As the country attempts to adapt and reconcile itself to the issues surrounding population changes, some have taken it upon themselves to use football as a tool for integration in a country which isn’t always regarded as the most welcoming.
One of these clubs is Opti Poba from the southern city of Potenza. The club, which started as a humble football team, stepped up its activities in October 2014 and is now a voluntary organisation with a legal office that can offer assistance to asylum seekers as they look to negotiate a complex bureaucratic system.
ForzaItalianFootball.com caught up with Opti Poba to learn more about what they do.
“What we do isn’t a job and we don’t like to define it as such,” said the club president Francesco Giuzio.
“We like to experience it as a passion, a passion for football, a passion for volunteering and a passion for human beings in general.”
As might be expected of a club with a name referencing FIGC president Carlo Tavecchio’s infamous gaffe about a fictional African Lazio youth team player, Opti Poba prefer to remain independent of the powers that be.
“I can say now that our relationship with the powers that be in football is absent,” Giuzio added.
“There was something at the beginning, including meetings with [FIGC integration adviser] Fiona May and Tavecchio.
“Out of the two experiences, the second was certainly the more pleasant, it was just a shame that Tavecchio was held hostage by what he had said and therefore he had little room to manoeuvre. In general, we prefer to stay outside of the FIGC and for the moment I can only see advantages with that. Obviously we don’t receive any financial support from organisations, all of our support comes from members and private donors.”
The majority of the team come from the Horn of Africa with Nigerians and Gambians also well-represented in a squad which has more than 50 players in its ranks.
“We don’t do anything [with the players] other than put them in a condition to help them themselves, on and off the pitch, operating like an enlarged family,” Giuzio went on.
“Everything belongs to everyone. From boots, to balls and the kit. Private property doesn’t exist… Maybe we’re a bit communist in that respect (laughs).
“Ours is certainly also a political act, but in the highest sense of the word. In the sense of finding solutions to problems. On the other hand, there is also a strong philanthropic element which simply urges us to take care of other people.”
Opti Poba also went on the discuss the challenges they face regularly as a club with such high-minded ambitions.
“The most serious challenges we have to face are institutional ones and ones to do with public opinion,” Giuzio explained.
“It wasn’t easy to win the faith of these two elements. Logistically, with a squad of 60-70 players who are without their own means of transport it is quite difficult.
“Crowdfunding was perhaps one of the easiest challenges for us to overcome because it publicised our ideas and actions to other people.
“We have relationships with other clubs which promote integration in sport, both in Italy and abroad (Our friend in England Paul Watson follows us closely). We hope that we can continue to increase the size of this network.
“When our opponents meet us for the first time they are certainly curious. We travel to play in places where there are only white people and it’s unusual for them to see a black team and that curiosity then makes way for other emotions, be it positive or negative.”
The club also believes that the refugee population contains some talented footballers.
“I believe that the standard of football in African countries is quite high,” said Giuzio. “Their physical preparation is certainly higher than the European average.
“Personally, I can say that I have found some very capable players, who certainly wouldn’t look out of place at a professional level.”
The club is also steadfast in its belief that the best days for Opti Poba are in the future.
“We hope that the kind of sporting activity which we promote could become almost obligatory in reception centres across Italy,” Giuzio added.
“The best moments for our club are yet to come, we are all sure of this.
“A book will be coming out soon and it will recount the boys’ experiences, from their journeys to their current projects.
“In general, I would make a sporting comparison: The most important goal is the next one!”