A Sicilian team is helping to save children from the grips of organised crime. By Gaia Caramazza

What it’s like to use rugby to take on the mafia

ROWS OF concrete multi-storey buildings emerge from the Sicilian countryside. Shop fronts are barricaded with metal shutters and garbage rests on the pavements where men loiter. Motorists lock their car doors as they drive through a neighbourhood where they would never think of stopping.

This is what Librino looks like on the surface – a place only spoken about when local newspapers report yet another shootout or drug bust. Gang violence and child poverty have even earned it the reputation as the ‘Bronx of Catania’, Sicily’s second largest city.

However, a local initiative to teach rugby to Librino’s youngest residents is trying to tackle this violent image.

“A team and a community like this is extraordinary in this neighbourhood,” says Alessio Panebianco, 20, of the Briganti di Librino rugby club where he has played since he was 12 years old. “Librino is not a nice area. It’s not a very nice area at all actually.”

Since 2006, Briganti has become a hub for the community, which gathers at the club’s grounds for matches, book readings, cooking lessons and more. Its after-school programmes are one of a kind in a neighbourhood with close to no social services.

Almost half of young people in Sicily are not in education or professional training, so children born in Librino’s high-rise blocks are forced to grow up quickly in order to provide for their families. As a result, they fall prey to the mafia, where they are often assigned to deal drugs because Italian courts impose reduced sentences on minors for such crimes.

Briganti rugby

A scrum against the high-rise backdrop (Credit: Rachele Tosto)

Panebianco used sport to escape: “Rugby became a point of reference for me, so I distanced myself from my classmates who were always on the streets involved with the wrong people. Almost all of my classmates left school, except me and some of the guys who stayed here at the rugby club.

“I’ve changed so much since I started playing. I learnt respect, honesty, trust – things that you learn without realising by playing with team-mates. Seeing more children from Librino joining the club gives me hope for this neighbourhood.”

Claudio Fava, the president of Sicily’s anti-mafia commission, believes strongly that social centres, like the one Briganti has become, are fundamental for the identity of a community.

“The mafia, like every form of power, is a seduction,” he says. “It is a way to escape and afford a minimum quality of life. So neighbourhoods need social centres, libraries, community spaces and sports clubs that can give people a life beyond that of organised crime.”

It is not an easy feat to provide such a space in one of Italy’s most crime-ridden neighbourhoods, however. Resistance to the project has emerged from locals with links to the mafia, who are used to dictating the developments of the neighbourhood, often demanding protection money from new businesses and initiatives. Children playing for Briganti who belong to families tied to organised crime expected to receive preferential treatment, according to one of the club’s founders, Stefano Curcuruto.

Briganti rugby

Briganti celebrating (Credit: Rachele Tosto)

“We’ve had to make it clear that here we play by different rules than the rest of the neighbourhood,” he says. “You can belong to whichever family – we don’t care. I think this garnered us some respect.”

On top of this, the club has had to deal with three minor fires and a robbery since the start of lockdown measures in Italy. Robberies have increased due to people’s desperation, while arson attacks are a commonly used intimidation tactic by the mafia.

Back in 2018, the breakout of a suspicious fire put the entire club’s existence at risk given the extent of the damage, but the determination of members ensured it remains as an important community base. Curcuruto says: “We don’t know who set the fire. We could not let this be the end of us, so we decided to pick ourselves back up, dust ourselves off and rebuild our home.”

From there, Briganti’s story became known across the globe, with rugby clubs from South America to Africa showing their solidarity during a difficult period. Even the Royal Navy, docked at the port of Catania, lent a helping hand.

Lieutenant Stephen Carr was one of 30 Navy officers who were scheduled to play a match against Briganti but instead found themselves rewiring circuits, fixing door frames and

building bookshelves. Curcuruto says: “The solidarity we received helped us move forward. We had so much to do before the inauguration and these guys (the Royal Navy) built everything back up single-handedly. This is what rugby is all about – giving each other support.”

Carr related with Briganti’s mission as he started playing sports thanks to a council-run project for children from poorer schools. His local rugby club is a community hub for Ashton-under-Lyne in Greater Manchester.

Briganti rugby

Briganti has a girls’ set-up too (Credit: Rachele Tosto)

“Not coming from a very affluent area, I understand the importance of a space for the community,” says Carr. “Sports clubs are the ideal starting point for someone to change their life. Helping Briganti reminded me of where I came from and how important sport was for who I am today. Without rugby I wouldn’t have ended up in the Royal Navy.”

From Manchester to Catania, tossing the oval ball pushes local communities to provide safe spaces for children to be children. Panebianco and Curcuruto have experienced this first-hand and they are willing to continue to defend their team and community.

Panebianco is unsure of what the future holds now that he’s finished school, but having choices is a dilemma many
in Librino sadly don’t have.

“I think I may enroll in the army, as it’s a way to get out and see the world. But I’m still young, so I’m not sure,” he says. “No matter what I do, I will always remain a Brigante because I was born here – it is my neighbourhood and my people.”

This feature first appeared in Rugby World in December 2020.

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