An Italian five-a-side women's football team have vowed to continue their title run despite mafia-style threats that had brought them to the verge of disbanding. Staff and players for Sporting Locri, from the region of Calabria in the country's south, said they plan to play their Lazio rivals on 10 January in the first fixture after the winter break.
"I think that playing is the right thing to do," the club's president, Ferdinando Armeni, whose family, including a three-year-old daughter, were personally targeted with threatening messages, told La Repubblica newspaper. "Obviously I first have to talk to authorities and other shareholders to make sure there are the conditions but I'd like to see the girls walking onto the pitch. They deserve it and the city deserves it".
He was echoed by the team captain, defender Sara Borello, who told La Gazzetta dello Sport she and her teammates were ready to play. "However we do need concrete support that goes beyond simple solidarity," she added.
Armeni had initially decided to close down the club after his tyres were slashed and intimidating messages were left on his car.
"It's time to close to Sporting Locri. Leave!" read a first note posted on the vehicle on 7 December. "Maybe we haven't been clear. Sporting Locri must close" read a second post that followed a few days later. A third note reading only "Who usually sits here?" was left on the backseat window where his daughter usually sits.
The language and method used are typical of mafia groups operating in the area, although investigators were still to ascertain whether local clans were indeed behind the threats.
Calabria and areas surrounding Locri are considered the heartland of the 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate, Europe's biggest drug cartel. The club's vice president, Giovanni Primerano, was also issued with similar threats.
On Boxing Day (26 December), Armeni announced his intention to disband the football club, who are currently fourth in Serie A, the top league in the country. He posted the words "Game Over" on a black background on Facebook and a message reading "Closed for dignity" on the home page of the team's website.
He decided to reconsider after receiving an outpouring of solidarity from authorities and football fans that urged the team not to give in to thugs.
"Locri have to play," said the head of Italy's National Olympic Committee Giovanni Malagò. "The club's managers, technicians and, above all, its athletes must not give in to these shameful acts that are unbearable in a civilised country."
Reasons for the threats were not yet clear. Armeni said he had no idea why he and the team were targeted and dismissed rumours that unpaid debts or even a love affair might have been behind the incident. A police investigation is under way.