LOCRI (Italy) • One of Italy's top women's indoor football teams defied a mafia-style threat in the heartland of the powerful 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate on Sunday, taking to the pitch to the rallying cries of top sports figures.
Sporting Locri, a futsal team who compete in Italy's top Serie A league, looked set to close last month after their president received anonymous messages threatening both his toddler and the club.
But on Sunday, the players jogged out onto the hard court in the stadium in Locri in their burgundy and whites chanting "I'll play!" to crowds of cheering fans in the stands.
Futsal is the increasingly popular brand of five-a-side indoor football - and the latest version of Italy's favourite sport to be tainted by the country's shadowy underworld.
Sporting Locri celebrated a moral victory after losing to Lazio 2-3 in a match which saw fans from both sides roar support for the home team.
"I don't know anything specific about the threat, I only know I'm here to play," said player Fernandez Beita, 31, shrugging off the defeat after "a game well-played".
They not only have to keep playing but they have to be given psychological assistance because I can only imagine the stress these poor girls have been put under.
NICOLA GRATTERI, top anti-mafia prosecutor, calling for more support for the Sporting Locri women's futsal team.
Club president Ferdinando Armeni bowed to pressure and resigned before Christmas, but the capitulation sparked a national outcry, with the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) stepping in to insist the team play on.
The incident threw the spotlight on the knotty role of sport in Calabria, a region in the grip of the richest and most powerful syndicate in Europe and which in 2014 had the highest level of unemployment in Italy, at 23.4 per cent.
With the club headed temporarily by the town's mayor, the match was broadcast live on national television, with FIGC president Carlo Tavecchio in the stands.
Italian prosecutors have launched a probe into the messages ordering Armeni to shut down the club.
Top anti-mafia prosecutor Nicola Gratteri said "the team absolutely must not close their doors".
"They not only have to keep playing but they have to be given psychological assistance because I can only imagine the stress these poor girls have been put under," he said, adding that the team were "a source of pride for this region".
It is not clear who made the threats or why, with Italian media speculating the club may have been targeted by a bitter ex-president or for financially-motivated reasons.
Football is a honeypot for Italy's mafia, which makes vast profits from match-fixing as well as using the sport as a means to recycle ill-gotten gains.