Atletico Diritti: A Unique Football Revolution

The Beginning

It is one of the most romantic and picturesque settings you can imagine for a football pitch. In the shadow of an ancient Roman aqueduct in the suburbs of Rome is Atletico Diritti. An amateur sports club and social project, it competes in men’s football, cricket, basketball, and women’s five-a-side football. But their presence and impact extends far beyond what happens on the pitch. The club’s playing roster is made up almost entirely of prisoners, ex-prisoners, and asylum seekers.

Credit: Fillipo Monteforte

Atletico Diritti Sports Club (In English: Athletic Rights) was established in 2014 by two NGOs. The first one, Antigone, works for prisoners rights. In their words “We are called Antigone because, like the heroine of the Greek tragedy, we fight for justice to be without the cruel traits of revenge.” The other is Progetto Diritti, an organisation which offers free legal assistance to migrant communities and asylum seekers. 

Both organisations had the idea of founding a sports club that would assist and uplift the marginalised people they were working with, and, with funding from Roma Tre University, Atletico Diritti was born. In the words of club president Susanna Marietti, “Sport is a universal language that manages to overcome many barriers. Through Atletico Diritti we have carried out campaigns and attracted the attention of the media on issues that are dear to us, such as prison.” Susanna Marietta, the national coordinator of Antigone, has dedicated her life to working with prisoners. When Atletico Diritti was founded, she was elected its president, holding the role ever since.

Where most clubs opt for shirt sponsors that can supply them the most revenue, Atletico Diritti proudly dons the brand Made in Jail, an Italian clothes brand set up in the 1980s by prisoners in Rebibbia prison who began screen printing t-shirts in the prison and selling them to the outside world. They are now run by ex-prisoners with the goal of helping “those who are serving a sentence or who have already served it to reintegrate into the social, cultural, and working fabric through re-education at work, [as well as] professional and cultural training.” Rebibbia prison is currently one of the largest in Italy, holding 352 women and 1927 men. 

Atletico Diritti, Italian football, Italy, Calcio Popolare, Rome, Rebibbia prison, community club, football club, Popular Football, Italian culture, men's football, women's football, racism in football, discrimination
Artwork by Charbak Dipta

In the early days of the club, they used Susanna’s and Antigone’s connections with the Italian Ministry of Justice to forge relationships and establish a team inside Rebibbia prison. 

Club volunteers began going to refugee camps and offering people the chance to join a football club in order to establish Atletico Diritti’s non-prison team. Originally, the club consisted only of refugees and ex-convicts playing in the outside-of-prison teams, and then of course only female prisoners playing inside of prison. 

As the club developed, more departments were established such as a cricket and basketball team, and the club grew, though it would soon realise that the balance between trying to be a force for social change, whilst also competing as a competitive sports team was a difficult line to tow. “We continually have to question ourselves about the right balance between competitive spirit and integration,” Susanna tells me. Eventually, the club expanded its roster to allow some players from other backgrounds to get involved in order to keep the club competitive. This move was led by the players at the time who felt like this was the right move to make in order to further develop the club.

As the club developed, so did a volatile political situation in Italy that saw the growth of anti-immigrant and far right rhetoric grow in Italian society. This would prove a challenge for the progressive Atletico Diritti as increasing anti-immigrant sentiment found solid ground within the country’s football culture.

Italy, Football, and the Far Right

In January 2024, a video went viral across the internet showing hundreds of men dressed in black making Far-Right salutes, echoing a dark chapter in Italy’s history, and emblematic of a growing faction in the country.

Global Project Against Hate and Extremism’s (GPAHE) 2023 report highlighted 13 Far-Right hate and extremist groups in Italy, including the Brothers of Italy party who are the current party in government, led by Giorgia Meloni. In this worrying climate, Atletico Diritti sees it as their duty to provide support and a safe haven for those marginalised by society.

As Susanna puts it, “For us, sport is an unparalleled tool for integration and a great social glue. The objectives are, on the one hand, to offer a concrete place of integration to young people at risk of marginalisation and, on the other, to propose to public opinion a model of anti-racism, tolerance, overcoming prejudice, and equality in diversity capable of speaking to all ages and all social backgrounds through sport.”

Photo credit: Atletico Diritti

In 2021, insults rained down on the Diritti players (“exclusively on our black boys,” according to one player) throughout a match. The game was tense and finished 1-0 to Atletico Diritti, whose players ignored the taunting. But at the end of the match when the players went to exchange handshakes, an opposition player would not shake the hands of their players and reportedly said to one, “You’re filthy” and “I won’t shake your hand because you make me dirty” amongst other, even more vile insults. Atletico Diritti filed a complaint to the league authorities, but the referee failed to mention it in his post-match report meaning that it was the word of two clubs against each other and there was no punishment dished out.

This was the most serious incident of racism faced by Atletico Diritti and its players; casual racism is common in Italy as Susanna explains. “We have had a few racist jokes at the games of our men’s soccer team, which over the years has been made up of many immigrant kids. But these things happen everywhere. Otherwise, people are very happy with our activities.”

Racism in Italian football has made headlines in the last number of years. Two high-profile incidents occurring in just the last year with Inter Milan’s Lukaku reporting serious racial abuse by Juventus supporters in 2023, and more recently in January 2024, AC Milan’s French goalkeeper Mike Maignan led his team off the pitch due to alleged racist chants directed toward him by opposing fans in Udine, Italy. According to Susanna, “Unfortunately today in Italy the political situation is very distant from an idea of ​​integration of the most disadvantaged people and above all of those who have committed a crime. Our business has become more difficult. But precisely for this reason it is even more necessary.”

Photo credit: Fabio Cittadini

For Atletico Diritti, the most important result is what happens off the pitch in their work to help refugees, migrants, and people in the penal system. The goal is community. “My residence permit had expired; I didn’t know what to do,” says Felicien, a Diritti player, in an interview with Il Foglio. “As soon as I talked about it with the kids and managers, they helped me obtain all the necessary documents.” He elaborates on the strong sense of community and solidarity he feels at the club, “Before wearing this shirt, I was unemployed. Today, however, I am a social worker and cultural mediator. I found my points of reference here. Other teams looked for me, but I couldn’t give up my friends.”

On the first day of the 2015-2016 championship, the players took to the pitch barefoot in solidarity with the migrants arriving in Europe, and to advocate for a change in migration policies, opening up reception and safe-access routes.

Photo credit: Atletico Diritti

Along with the practical and legal help the club provides, they also play a key role in the psychological health of their players. Luisa, a female player, explains. “Prison is a world unto itself, If you don’t put your soul into something you lose your mind. When they told me which day I would go out, I reacted with a hint of disappointment: I would have missed the five-a-side football tournament with my teammates.” Many of these players would not be able to afford the fees or hold the proper paperwork to be able to play for most other football clubs in Italy. Atletico Diritti gives them a space to play. Even a number of Diritti players who are not eligible to play in league games due to a lack of documents are still allowed to train with the squad and be a part of the club in every other aspect. 

This is an approach to football that is not overly familiar in the modern era of the game—many people will ask themselves why a team would put the time and resources into training a player that they cant even play in league games, but Atletico Diritti views football primarily as a source for social inclusion and community growth. And, pertinently, they are not unique in this new style of football club who sees the aims and purpose of a football club as more than just success on the pitch.

Popular Football

Atletico Diritti can be viewed in the context of a wider subculture emerging in Italian football known as Calcio Popolare (English: Popular Football). This is a whole movement of amateur or semi-professional clubs in the lower and non league divisions of Italy that are forming to create a new type of football that sees itself as a rebellion against the commercial turn the game has taken. These clubs such as Spartak Lecce, Palermo Calcio Polare, Partizan Scampia, and Atletico Rebelde were all founded on the same guiding principles of anti-commercialisation, being run by their supporters and being deeply ingrained in community work and activism.

Disillusioned from the way modern football was going with its ethically questionable sponsors, extortionate ticket prices, and private ownership model, supporters all across Italy have been forming these unique clubs that want to make football more local and more community oriented. These clubs have all risen in poor neighbourhoods where people feel alienated from the modern game.

An example of such a club who are also based in Rome, and have strong ties to Atletico Diritti, is Atletico San Lorenzo. A big part of their club’s work is organising street parties and festivals in their working-class Roman suburb with the goal of having fun, helping local businesses, and occasionally taking public spaces away from local drug gangs. This is all being done and being spurred on not by a political activist group or by a neighbourhood council, but, in typical Italian fashion, by the local neighbourhood football club. Another club, Afro Napoli takes from a similar model as Atletico Diritti where their team is made up fully of non-EU migrants struggling to gain citizenship. 

Whilst most of these Calcio Popolare clubs remain a fringe part of Italian culture and are often not very well known outside of the Calcio Popolare scene or outside their local communities, Atletico Diritti have captured the imagination of a broad spectrum of Italian society. In 2015, Italian filmmaker Alessandro Marinelli made a film about the club titled Fragments of Freedom, and in 2020 the team captain was invited to meet with Pope Francis. Whilst being escorted by prison officers, she met him in The Vatican, and upon meeting him she proudly presented the Pontiff her team’s pennant. 

Susanna firmly believes that the most important work the club does is not in these glamorous encounters or in good publicity, but in the day-to-day difference they have made in their players’ lives. “A few years ago our captain was summoned by Pope Francis to a private audience, but the most important experience is what happens in every training session and in every match on the pitch. If we understand that we can improve on a playing field, then we also understand that we can improve in life, a player once told us. Our women’s five-a-side football team in particular has truly revolutionised life at the institute.”

For many of these women prisoners, Diritti has given them back some sense of autonomy and normalisation in their lives. 

Photo credit: Fabio Cittadini

Atletico Diritti’s women’s teams can only play home games as they are not allowed to leave the prison whilst serving their sentence, but many teams are granted permission to enter the prison to play against them. This adds excitement to mundane prison life and provides a rare space where the whole place can be united as one. Prison guards, staff, and other inmates all take to the stands together to cheer on Atletico Diritti no matter who they are playing. Susanna Marietta tells me, “The best thing is seeing the opposing teams enter the prison. The young people perhaps arrive full of prejudices and at the end of the match they leave with a completely new mentality…The project has a great re-educational force, there is connection with the outside world, psychophysical well-being, and respect for others. On the pitch the girls finally feel ‘free’,  equal to the others and without labels.”

Despite facing some discrimination on the pitch and trying to support migrants amidst the backdrop of Giorgia Meloni’s Far Right government, Atletico Diritti’s resilience and commitment to their club’s goals shines through. The club embodies the ethos of Calcio Popolare, where football becomes a catalyst for positive societal change. In the future Atletico Diritti plans to try and grow to establish more teams in more prisons.

Photo credit: Fabio Cittadini

Atletico Diritti, a team that always plays at home, stands as a testament to the transformative power of sports, community, and solidarity. As Susanna puts it herself, “Sport is a great social glue, it can teach profound values ​​such as coexistence and solidarity. If the clubs understand all of this in depth, the connection with the local communities can only be a virtuous circle that does good both for the community and for the sports clubs themselves.”

Ethan Rooney

Ethan is a freelance journalist from Dublin, Ireland. He is drawn to looking at the unique and under reported aspects of conflict and counter cultural movements, as well as delving into the social factors surrounding them. He believes that these aspects are significant in order to fully understand the issues. Ethan's main focus lies in global conflict and football supporters culture.