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Rugby players who fight the mafia that burned down their club in Catania.

Date: August 20, 2022 Time: 05:04:08

Gloria Mertoli’s security service ends as dawn illuminates the pillars on the playing field in Librino, the Catania region and the stronghold of Cosa Nostra, the feared Sicilian mafia. Since the mobsters set fire to the clubhouse and its bus, she and another women’s rugby team player, Briganti Librino RUFC, have taken turns guarding after daytime practice and guarding the grounds in the evenings.

Ever since the club started working to get the kids off the streets of Librino, who were easy to recruit for the mafia, the clans have been trying to put it out of business. “Librino is a tricky area,” Piero Mancuso, co-founder of Briganti, tells the Observer. “We knew it would not be easy to work here. These criminal attacks wanted to destroy everything that we have achieved in recent years. But if we look at what we have done so far, I can say that they have made us stronger.”

The story of the small Briganti team from Catania made headlines around the world and received messages of solidarity from England manager Eddie Jones as well as former England captain Bill Beaumont. Even the World Rugby Association expressed support for the team. Bolton’s 150-year-old amateur rugby team forged a partnership with a Sicilian team last year. “For the people of Librino, rugby offers an alternative to a life of crime on the streets,” Bolton chairman Mark Brocklehurst said last year. “If we help Briganti by offering a glimmer of hope, amazing things can happen. What better motivation could there be for Bolton?

More than a club

With several youth and senior teams, as well as women’s teams in various age groups, Briganti was founded in Librino in 2006 with goals beyond rugby. “We built a clubhouse with a small library, dining room and kitchen,” says Mancuso. “We offer extracurricular activities to the less privileged children of the area and begin to teach them the noble sport of rugby, based on respect for opponents and rules.”

With a population of 70,000, Librino has one of the highest school dropout rates in Europe. The Mafia used the area as a center for drug trafficking and storage, controlled by the Kursoti Milanesi and Capello clans of Cosa Nostra. Here, crime is seen as a path to economic success as well as respect in society.

As in other disadvantaged areas of southern Italy, there are few institutions in these areas that offer a real alternative to children. And the south is an ideal target for mafia recruiting. In 2017, a police investigation revealed that a six-year-old boy had been used to transport drugs. In this context, the upbringing of lawfulness and respect for others faces the distrust of gangsters.

At midnight on January 11, 2018, a fire broke out at the Briganti Club. Books, balls, canteen, computers, T-shirts and trophies were burned beyond recognition. “At least 10 years of memories have gone up in smoke,” says Mancuso. “It was terrible”.

The headquarters was rebuilt within a few months thanks to private donations, but looting and attacks continued. In April 2021, someone broke the iron gates of the club and took out the equipment. On May 16, 2021, the team bus was set on fire. “All my life I’ve heard people talk about the mafia, but when you’re in front of it, it’s a different story,” says Martoli, 22, captain of the women’s rugby team. “When they set fire to the bus, it was like my own house was on fire. You are in a difficult situation because you do not know how to deal with it. You don’t know if you should go to the police. You really have no idea how to react.”

From that day on, Mertoli and her colleagues took turns guarding the locker rooms, the new headquarters, and the library. “We spent the whole night there,” Mertoli says. “We order food and spend time playing Risk or Monopoly. If we hear any noise, we will take our sticks.”

Trouble for gangsters

Claudio Fava, president of the Sicilian Anti-Mafia Commission and son of Giuseppe, who was killed by the Mafia in Catania in 1984, says that “anyone who offers another life to children born and raised in these Mafia strongholds is a nuisance for the Mafia bosses.

Fava compares the terrorist attacks against Briganti to the murder of Father Pino Puglisi in Palermo, a priest shot dead by mafia hitmen in 1993 after he challenged an organization that controls one of the city’s most difficult neighborhoods. The priest fought to build a soccer field to keep the kids off the streets. “In these areas, offering these kids a way to school or playing sports is an insult to mafia bosses,” Fava says.

But life, like rugby, is a game of endurance, and everything, right up to the last minute, can change the outcome of a match. Thanks to international support and donations, Briganti was able to officially open the new rugby field in February. “We have risen from the ashes of the fire that these people lit,” says Mancuso. “And if we are disturbed again, we will be here,” adds Mertoli. “And, like in a rugby match, we will not give up an inch. We will continue to protect ourselves because this is our home.”

Translated by Ignacio Real-Schies


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