By Marlo Safi
It’s the Italian word for “ball” and also the colloquial term used to refer to “soccer,” the sport that many Italians consider a source of national glory and triumph as well as a staple in Italian culture.
It’s also all that’s required to play the sport — a ball.
It’s not as expensive as polo, which is essentially soccer on a horse plus a gratuitous disposable income, and it’s not as dangerous as football, which studies have recently shown to put players at risk for a degenerative disease from repeated blows to the head. It’s not as expensive as football, either — while football at a high school level costs around $75 per player due to equipment, soccer costs around $15.
Alleyways, fields, the beach and streets are the soccer player’s oyster, making it a sport available to almost everyone to play. In Italy, it’s common to see children playing soccer in the streets, and according to Marco DiLeonardo, long summer days are spent in the streets playing soccer while parents are at work.
Marco, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, has family in Italy and frequently visits, his last trip having ended in May of 2017. He was born into a family of soccer players and soon became one himself, hoping to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, who was a professional soccer player until he fought for Italy in World War II.
“I was born with a ball at my feet,” Marco said.
Marco recalls the liberation soccer brought him, and hoped to pursue the sport professionally until a near-fatal accident left him with a gloomy prognosis.
In 2003, when he was 7-years old, Marco was run over by a golf cart and according to doctors, it was a miracle he survived.
Not only were his aspirations to become a soccer player shattered, but doctors told him he would never walk again. He spent the next two and a half years on crutches or with a boot on, and at the age of 9, he had to choose between getting his ankle permanently fused, causing him to walk on a limp, or debilitating arthritis beginning at approximately the age of 35. Having faith that there would be medical advances alleviating the pain from arthritis when he approached that age, he chose against the ankle fusion.
While Marco made significant medical progress, he still wasn’t able to play soccer and would instead read books while watching his friends play on the beach or in the streets, and his inability to play inspired him to help those that were disadvantaged in a different way.
When he was 12 in 2008, Marco watched a boy playing soccer in the street in Italy get hit by a truck, and soon befriended the boy, whose name is Davide.
“It’s a prominent issue in Italy where many kids don’t have supervision during the day while their parents are at work and many families can’t afford to send them to ‘colonies’, which are Italian day camps,” Marco said.
After becoming friends with Davide, Marco suggested to his mother that she should drive Davide to the beach to play soccer while on her way into town, and so for the entire summer of 2008, she did.
The next summer, Marco’s grandfather also began driving several local kids to the beach to play.
“It spread like wildfire because it’s such a prominent issue there,” Marco said. “My grandfather only drove for a month before I started seeing there was potential to do something more.”
Marco realized that his grandfather’s connections in the transportation business could help him launch a non-profit that would allow disadvantaged kids to spend weekdays in a safe environment playing soccer with other local kids.
“After my grandfather was drafted by Mussolini, he retired his soccer career and the country was destroyed after the war,” said Marco. “He had few opportunities and became a truck driver, so he ended up driving all over Europe and Italy and developed a lot of connections with transportation companies.”
Marco took advantage of his grandfather’s network and, at age 13, tried establishing logistics to make his idea come to life.
“I would go into these businesses with my non-fluent Italian and people didn’t really take me seriously,” Marco said. “They’d ask ‘what is this 13 year old American doing here?’”
Despite the daunting financial, logistic and language barriers he had to manage and overcome, Marco and his co-supervisor Davide acquired a 12-person van for the entire summer and the next summer he received commitment forms from 13 other kids whose parents agreed to pay €5 per child per day.
“We found out we could rent out a bus at an affordable cost for the parents, and we just started bussing back and forth to the beach,” he said. “We would do drills and use shoes and flip flops as cones, and we became a very close group at the end of the summer.”
Marco’s non-profit, which he called Le Colonie del Pallone, grew to include nearly 100 kids in 2012 and has 125 kids today, which Davide primarily manages while Marco speaks to parents who are interested in the program. For the future, Marco hopes the program can allow as many kids to play the sport they love while being in the company of others who share the same passion.
“I grew into being who I am because I was able to interact with so many Italian people I otherwise wouldn’t be able to because of cultural barriers or shyness,” Marco said. “I saw myself in those kids because it was a danger for them to play, like it was for me to play with my injury. I wanted to give them the opportunity I never had, and I want them to achieve more with their talent than I ever could due to my injury.”