‘Mad about football’ | Tackling the stigma of mental illness through calcio, cinema

The trailer from Matti per il calcio (Mad about Football), released in Italy in Oct 06. In Italian. (Copyright © 2006 “Matti per il calcio”)

Rome | Within the sometimes cynical culture of calcio in Italy, the 99-minute documentary Matti per il calcio (Mad about Football) offers respite from the latest calciopoli scandal: the dark dealings linking several of Italy’s major clubs to a pattern of match-fixing and referee seduction. “Una cura di calcio” says the headline above the film review in La Rinascita della Sinistra. The article suggests the benefits of football in treating the mentally ill and clinically depressed, but also wonders whether the members of Gabbiano FC, the subjects of the movie, recapture some of the joy and life-renewing power that football was meant to provide.

Gabbiano FC shows the professionals how the game should be played and in what spirit, rather than the other way around.

Francesco Rescigno, who writes the review for La Rinascita (1 Dec 06), begins with a quote from Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road (1957):

[T]he only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars….

The delay between production of 'Matti per il calcio' in 2004 to widespread release on DVD late in 2006 was due to familiar problems facing documentary filmmakers worldwide: indebtedness and lack of access to distribution networks.Matti per il calcio

Such are the players in the side created by Mauro Raffaeli, the clinical psychiatrist who in 1993 began working with patients, twice per week, on a football pitch in Bufalotta, on the outskirts of Rome. Co-author of studies seeking “psychoeducational interventions” on behalf of schizophrenic patients, Raffaeli emphasizes getting those suffering from severe mental illness out of institutions and providing an alternative approach to overreliance on psychiatric drugs.

Thus, Raffaeli hit upon what is called calcioterapia, calcio therapy. Since forming Il Gabbiano as a competitive team within the Dipartimento di Sanitá Mentale di Roma, he has worked with some 80 players, more than half of whom have returned to work and cut down on meds (Tom Kington, “Football Tackles Schizophrenia and Depression,” The Guardian, Jan 8). Raffaeli emphasizes that football represents an external activity to individuals for whom unseen irregularities in the mind keep them sealed off from “normal life,” stigmatized and overmedicated within an institutional ghetto.

We were looking to organize something that strikes of normality, and we found in calcio an exceptional instrument for this idea. When I play with the men of Gabbiano I am not “in” their service, but I feel “at” the service of men who have found in calcio a space to be well. (quoted in Carlo Gubitosa, “Matti per il calcio,” Carta, 16 Nov 06)

No one expresses the feelings of liberation from confinement and low expectation better than the players. The biographies are extraordinary. Benedetto Quirino, 41, of whom the film’s website says that “he hears voices and speaks with them, voices that anger or alarm him depending on his state of mind,” received a university degree in psychology and hails from a wealthy family. But on the right wing for Il Gabbiano he has found some relief from the inside forces. “When you run out on the pitch, the voices stop,” Quirino says. “Your opponent is no longer inside you, he has come out and you can dribble around him and beat him.”

Sandro Faraoni plays in defense. Rotund and musclebound, he exhibits the physique of a former presidential bodyguard. He is also schizophrenic, but has taken up painting and poetry during his treatment and also studies the Tao. Marione Palomba, 43, a gifted center forward with a “phenomenal right foot,” but also a history of drug experimentation and severe schizophrenia, clearly runs the side in the footage available on a recent Repubblica TV feature (6 Dec 06). “When he plays with Il Gabbiano,” the film website says, “he is no longer in recovery.”

Captain Carlo Strappaghetti emerges as one of the philosophers of the players’ situation, skewering the often false distinctions society enforces between the sane and the mad. “For me,” he says at one point, “the real madness is a completely normal life.” Of the team’s passion for its existence on the fenced-in, dirt pitch at Polisportiva Bufalotta, he is quoted as saying in Il Romanista, the daily newspaper covering AS Roma, that “ours is the true calcio: the dust, the mud, the goals with the ripped nets. It is above all the desire to be together. It is a healthy calcio—extremely healthy, yes, therapeutic. Because this calcio has saved my life, in the truest sense of the word” (quoted in Mauro Macedonio, “Matti per il calcio,” 17 Nov 06).

The lads of Gabbiano FC. (Copyright © 2006 “Matti per il calcio”)

As a film project, director Volfgango De Biasi and collaborator Francesco Trento says that Matti constitutes “an act of love for calcio.” During production, two video cameras recorded 12 matches that formed the regular season in the seven-team mental-health league. The film provides play-by-play for each match and, for the season-ending playoff, narration from Sky TV commentators for the 2006 World Cup finals, Fabio Caressa and José Altafini.

In 2006, Il Gabbiano went on to win a nationwide competition, with some 50 other teams of mentally ill patients having been created on Raffaeli’s model. On Jan 16, the film and associated book, along with Raffaeli and members of Il Gabbiano, will receive the 10th “Altropallone” award from Altri Mondiali, an umbrella group of peace-directed sporting initiatives, including the Mondiali Antirazzisti, or anti-racist World Cup. The award honors “actions for solidarity, for clean calcio, against consumerism in calcio and sport, against racism, for peace.”

While celebrating these successes and a reuniting of calcio with clean motives, Raffaeli and assistants likely will acknowledge the importance of staying power. Players and caretakers have worked more than 10 years for the recognition and must continue into the future. The filmmakers quote from Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano‘s own citation, in Las palabras andantes (1993), of Argentine director and poet Fernando Birri:

Utopia is on the horizon. I take two steps toward it, and it retreats two steps. I walk ten steps and the horizon moves ten steps further. However much I walk, I will never reach it. What then is utopia for? It is for this: for walking.


U.S. magazine Newsweek, in its online edition, features an interview with Santo Rullo, a psychiatrist who, with Raffaeli, has worked the last 14 years on developing “soccer therapy” (Barbie Nadeau, “Soccer as Therapy for Mental Illness,” Jan 18).

In an effort to show how mental illness is more complex than believed, Rullo introduces on the Matti per il calcio website a series of clinical analyses of everyday calciomatto (soccer madness), beginning with the Zidane-Materazzi encounter from the 2006 World Cup final. Rullo chalks Zidane’s “temporary madness” down to a manifestation of dissociation, in which an element of one’s personality splits off to express itself in a stressful situation. Rullo emphasizes the involuntary nature of Zidane’s action and its links to a broader culture that is itself “soccer crazy.” Thus, Rullo tells Newsweek, “[a] person who is normally sane can have moments of craziness and vice versa.”

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. [...] similar programs in Italy have discovered (see 12 Jan 07), a London football league presents “regular, constant, holistic treatment” for those [...]

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