Crazy for football: How the beautiful game is helping psychiatric patients in Italy

Cray for football

Between February 23 and 29, 2016 in Osaka Japan, 12 Italian players aged between 20 and 50 took part in the first ever futsal World Cup for people with mental disorders. TGU’s Franco Ficetola takes a closer look at what was described as “The World’s Craziest Cup.”

Imagine you’re running toward the opposite goal, alone. Rival defenders are behind you, the whole of your visual field is occupied by a goalkeeper stood inside a rectangle made up of four white lines. The ball is glued to your strongest foot, the wind whispers in your ears as you sprint, trying to get as close as possible to the target. Suddenly, just as you are ready to fire the ball past the goalie with all your vigour, forcing spectators to break the silence which had accompanied your running, you’re stopped by a linesman raising his fluorescent flag to the sky: offside.

Now imagine repeating the same scene over and over. Tens, hundreds, thousands of times: a handful of metres and you would reach the opposite goal, but you just can’t. As soon as you’re about to get at the right distance for a shot, the linesman keeps raising that damned flag. Every single time.

The life of a psychiatric patient is pretty much like this. Among all the things they’d like to do and the goals they’d like to set, there’s an invisible burden that must always be taken into account. It often prevents them from leading their life the way they would like. The linesmen here are depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and they keep stopping the striker just as he’s about to bring the move to completion.

In addition to being used as a metaphor to understand the condition of mental patients, the game of football also provides an opportunity to give colour to the world as seen through the eyes of these men and women, who often only have a black-and-white vision of the reality surrounding them. Therefore, it makes sense that these two worlds are finally being brought together.

Mental illness is very different from a more conventional illness. It doesn’t affect all patients every day and night in the same way. In fact, it’s more like a rollercoaster, with ups and downs, variable force and no predictable evolution. The symptoms, as common as they may be, range greatly in intensity, timing and duration, making every patient unique. Accordingly, the treatment and the medicines must be tailored to meet the needs of every case.

Despite this, mental patients share a certain degree of exclusion from society, brought about by them being perceived as ‘different’ and perhaps even ‘dangerous’ by close-minded people. Another thing they have in common is the tendency to turn nightmares into reality, and to succumb to them. All these things inevitably lead to a lack of self-confidence, a sense of alienation from the world and a desire to turn in upon oneself – further compounding an already complicated situation.

And yet, it should be clear to every lover of the beautiful game that football provides everything necessary to fill in those gaps in the mind of a mental patient. Inclusion, obedience to a set of rules and, most importantly, a chance to focus one’s own mind not on nightmares but on dreams, as frivolous as they can be: scoring a goal, winning a match, earning a trophy. This is what those suffering from psychic problems need most.

Luckily enough, someone in Italy had the same idea a long time ago. The country has always been a step ahead of other nations when looking to cure this sort of problem. In 1978, psychiatrist Franco Basaglia was the main promoter of a law aimed at reforming the whole of the Italian psychiatric system. The goal was to abolish mental asylums and the social stigma connected with them, and to adopt a mentality more oriented toward the theories of psychotherapy, recognizing the right for mental patients to live a dignified life and to establish links with the society surrounding them, instead of living secluded in the dark rooms of inhospitable institutes in the middle of nowhere – a practice still going strong in some parts of the world today.

The principles underlying the Basaglia law are what led the Roman psychiatrist Santo Rullo to invest time, energy and money in a project to create an Italian national futsal team for mental patients, which took part in the first edition of an ad hoc World Cup, held in Japan.

This adventure, masterfully told by the Italian director Volfango De Biasi in a documentary titledCrazy for Football – The Craziest World Cup and presented to the Rome Film festival in 2016, started with a nationwide selection process that brought candidates from every corner of Italy to the capital. Five-a-side Coach Enrico Zanchini was in charge of the final cut and, after picking 12 men, he turned the chosen ones into a real team, with the help of the former boxing world champion Vincenzo Cantatore, who acted as the athletic director.

The initiative was backed by the Italian Football Federation, who provided official kits and tracksuits, identical to those worn by the regular national team. In doing so, FIGC officially endorsed the birth of this team, which consequently became a part of the Italian football system, alongside the senior national team, the national under-21 team, the women’s national team and so on.

The tournament’s formula consisted of a single group stage and a final between the first two in the table. Italy finished third in the group and then went on to win the bronze medal match against Peru. Despite the final result, Zanchini’s men have shown some encouraging results, not only from a footballing perspective, but also with regards to their psychiatric problems, diverting their attention to the healthy competitiveness of the game, to tactical guidelines, to the joy of representing a whole nation and to the dream of winning a trophy that, as everyone who has enjoyed football knows, becomes a thing of paramount importance regardless of the level.

These very results are what makes this approach worthy of being duplicated as much as possible, as claimed by De Biasi, Rullo and Zanchini in various public events related to the documentary. The first World Cup has been a success, but there were only four participants: Italy, Japan, Peru and a team representing the city of Osaka. The fact that Japan decided to host this first edition is a significant choice in itself and a sign of goodwill on the part of the Asian superpower, given its backwardness regarding psychiatric institutes which are still built in isolated areas with the sole objective of hiding the patients as if they are people to be afraid of.

This is clearly not enough, and the hope is that even more countries will lend receptive ears to this way of treating mental problems. These national teams are not only beneficial to the 12 players involved, but could have unbelievable effects on the psyche of every single mental patient, giving them a dream which could help them tackle negative thoughts and establish healthy relations with other people.

In the meantime, events like the World Cup would mean an increased exposure for those patients that many nations have been wanting to hide for too long. In those countries where the mind-set is particularly antiquated, such events would allow the masses to become familiar with psychic pathologies. Going to the matches could have a positive impact on people, making them understand that these patients are not ‘different’, but simply normal people to whom something bad occurred at some point in life; something that ensured they have struggled ever since. Minds like that of Sandro, one of the oldest players in the team. A policeman from 1982 to 1988, he was in the personal security detail of Italian former President Francesco Cossiga but, at some point, he had a nervous breakdown, started hearing voices in his head and, as a consequence, his whole existence changed.

Despite this, the impact of football on his life has been as powerful as that nervous breakdown, and the words he spoke in De Biasi’s documentary are a succinct yet clear explanation of why similar teams should be created in every corner of the Earth:

Football has accounted for the 80% of my progress. It helped me a lot, allowing me to sweat, to have discipline, to relate with other people and, as Santo Rullo puts it, to fight against my spectres, my fears and my weaknesses on the pitch.

Words by Franco Ficetola: @Franco92C14