Massimo Vallati

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Italy
Fellow Since 2017
This description of Massimo Vallati's work was prepared when Massimo Vallati was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2017 .

Introduction

Massimo completely reframes the rules in which soccer is played to promote empathy, team-work, inclusion and leadership in young people and adults, in a way that appeals to everyone playing soccer—from professional soccer players to children with a wide range of talents, in every context.

The New Idea

Massimo is creating an inclusive soccer system, as opposed to the exclusivity of traditional soccer. His goal is to activate local communities through children playing soccer and their families. Massimo’s innovation tackles two separate social issues: 1) the isolation and lack of opportunities for young residents of urban peripheries; 2) the violence and discrimination embedded in the practice of soccer.

Massimo sees soccer as a powerful means to engage and empower young people, especially in countries where it is the dominant sport. But the current system, at all levels, embodies and spreads negative values such as bullying, social exclusion, as well as extreme and exclusionary competitiveness. Traditional soccer schools accept children until they are 13 years old. From that moment onwards, a fierce selection is made: only talented players can continue to play. Through the whole reformulation and enrichment of the rules of soccer, Massimo manages to include people with different talent levels and ages to contribute to the team and to be active in their local communities.

In Europe and Latin America, soccer is the main sport for boys and young men, and it embodies masculinity. Massimo has created new rules to play soccer, in order to educate children and young people on inclusion—the rule of law and respect for diversity. He began his activities in one of the poorest areas of the country, Corviale, at the periphery of Rome. In Corviale, school dropout is the norm, unemployment is widespread, and lawlessness is common. Regular soccer could provide a structured form of teamwork and respect for rules, but it does not leave room for inclusion of the weaker members of the society. The opposite, unfortunately, is true. Violence, racism, sexism, homophobia and social exclusion are systemic parts of soccer. Massimo re-defines the rules of soccer to give players the role of “caretakers” (or guardians) towards weaker members of the local community, by making them act as changemakers for the entire community.

Massimo's goal is to motivate young people to become changemakers and recreate the spirit of community among people of different ages, social and economic backgrounds, that he used to see in the past. Through Calciosociale, Massimo does the following: a) creates a counter-narrative against violence and unfair play, b) builds good habits where weekly games become an aggregation moment for the community and c) transforms the soccer field into a modern square where everyone can be a positive activist for the community.

The Problem

In Italy, children and young people do not practice sports in school, but through external clubs. Each neighborhood has sport schools, paid for by the children’s family. Despite the huge potential soccer has to reach many families of all social classes, already dominating the scene for most boys and young men, soccer is nowadays one of the least inclusive institutions in Italy. In 2015, the Women’s Soccer spokesperson complained that little visibility was given to the female tournament and the President of the National Youth Soccer League publicly replied, “those four lesbians are always complaining.” He did not resign for it.

The Italian soccer league system, also known as the Italian soccer pyramid, refers to the hierarchical system for soccer in Italy, that consists of 594 divisions having 3332 teams, in which all divisions are bound together by the principle of promotion and relegation at all levels. This creates the theoretical possibility for every single club, even the smallest, to ultimately rise to the very top of the system: a local amateur club could climb the Italian league and win the Scudetto (first prize for first League Team). While this may be unlikely in practice, there certainly is significant movement within the pyramid.

This explains why competition is at very high levels. There are 7000 soccer schools across Italy, for a total of 450,000 boys and girls enrolled. However, only the most gifted and talented youngsters are going to pass the strict selection that takes place at the age of 13, leaving everyone else excluded from the sport. Only one child out of 5,000 can hope to continue their own soccer career. The sole goal of soccer schools is to be able to have their own exceptional player and sell him/her to top teams.

Outside the field, the soccer system has even more dark sides, namely ultras. Italian soccer fans in Italy are famous for their feverish support: the Italian word for fan, “tifoso,” translates as those who have typhoid. The first ultras groups were formed in the late 1960s, when supporters from Milan, Inter, Sampdoria, Torino and Verona formed loud and sometimes violent gangs. The original groups were often influenced by far-right movements or by the narrative of left-wing guerrilla riots (hence names such as “Brigades,” “Fedayeen” and “Commando”). Over time, these names were translated into English as the movement became more and more popular: “Fighters,” “Old Lions,” “Deranged,” “Out of Our Heads.”

By the mid-1970s, every major club in Italy had its own ultras group and a decade later, most had dozens. There are 382 ultras groups in Italy, from which some are still explicitly political (40 far-right and 20 far-left). The areas of the stadium where ultras stand (the curve) are characterized by drug dealing, fights, stabbings, shootings, illegal business deals, ticket-touting and counterfeit merchandise.

Communities and citizens are divided by their different memberships to the fans and ultras groups. Massimo himself experienced the division of the fans inside his favorite team, Lazio. This division increases violence and completely denaturalize the pleasure of living the sport altogether.

The Strategy

“Changing the rules of soccer to reinterpret the rules of the world” is Calciosociale’s motto, making the objective of the organization very clear. According to the principles and values promoted by Calciosociale, soccer is a metaphor of life, building the fundamentals of inclusion, respect for other cultures, civic-awareness and a solid relationship with society. Every initiative of Calciosociale is strongly pedagogic-oriented and intended to highlight the potential rather than the limitations of those people considered difficult to handle, honing one’s skills by giving value to everyone’s limitations and differences.

Calciosociale completely reshapes the rules, roles and objectives of soccer. Specifically, each game takes place within a Calciosociale championship that includes both matches on the field and out of the field, to become true Caretakers. Another motto of Calciosociale is: “Only those who care, will win.”

• On the field:

Calciosociale’s teams are formed by some young professional players as well as people of mixed ages, gender and talents. Each person is assigned a coefficient according to his/her soccer skills in a scale ranging from one to ten. Coefficient 1 is the most fragile player, while coefficient 10 is the strongest player. All coefficients must be present in a team. Specific rules ensure that team-play is incentivized (nobody can score more than 3 goals, for example) and that the usually-excluded-players are an essential asset to victory (for instance, penalties must be kicked by the player with the lowest coefficient in the team). Matches are played with no referees, but within each team there is an educator who makes sure that the game is played fairly. There are no age limits to be part of a team (Massimo says that Calciosociale can be played by anyone between the age of 10 and 90!).

This inclusive approach makes neuro-typical and disabled people interact with one another, proving extremely versatile and, therefore, applicable to different contexts and situations. Moreover, as part of non-formal education, the “peer to peer” learning within Calciosociale has become common practice. This relational method promotes teamwork and enables children to pass down acquired knowledge and to guide those who encounter more difficulties. In line with the rules of Calciosociale—“looking after the others” and “being loyal”—the winning team is the one that promotes the potential of each member, regardless of being talented, facing cultural, social, physical or mental disabilities.

• Outside the field:

Off-field games are of two types: 1) thematic meetings on topics related to active citizenship, such as studying the Constitution, or the history of Mafia victims and 2) urban redevelopment projects in the neighborhood. These are essential parts of Massimo’s program because they keep the entire community through kids and their families, active. In fact, in order to increase their score for the tournament, teams are encouraged to engage more and more people in activities outside the field.

Calciosociale’s methodology is based on a holistic personal development. Wellbeing stems from a series of actions that take into consideration different aspects: children’s psychology, their socioeconomic status, the relations involved in their civic development, the care for the environment and the community around them, which define a sound self- and other-awareness.

With these rules, Massimo has created a toolkit that can easily be replicated by many others, including schools, speakers, and soccer schools. Calciosociale has received many awards recognizing its impact. It has been awarded as Best Practice by the European Union and has been mentioned as an example of excellence by the Italian Minister Del Rio during the Italian semester of the European Parliament.

Massimo's goal is that every child who plays soccer experiences Calciosociale's methodology at least once in his/her week's training. So, he hopes to reach both—the one player in every 5000 that goes to the top teams and the 4999 that are left behind. This empowers kids to be active and aware citizens of their communities. The strategy to achieve this goal is to activate testimonials, such as the professional players of the top teams, and to have the soccer schools of the major Italian companies use the Calciosociale methodology.

Calciosociale is now replicating in 4 Italian regions: Tuscany, Sardinia, Abruzzo and Campania. Two Universities and three European First League teams are replicating Massimo’s methodology within their soccer schools and are sharing their results with Massimo: Università Tor Vergata (Italy), College West Anglia (UK), OGC Nizza (France), Debreceni Honved SE (Hungary), SC Levski Bulgaria.

Since its foundation in 2005, Calciosociale has had more than 3000 children and their families directly involved in its activities in the city of Rome and thousands of people reached through independent replications. In 2017, 350 kids have participated in Calciosociale’s workshops for inclusion in Rome, whereas around 600, amongst adults and children, have benefited from a European project for social inclusion involving Calciosociale.

Neighborhoods in which Massimo operates have seen improvements in social cohesion: specifically, gender violence, racial discrimination and violent crime have all decreased. These changes are all reflective of the rules Massimo has introduced in Calciosociale. For instance, encouraging boys and girls to play together discourages the negative gender norms that are at the root of gender violence. University of Tor Vergata has yet to complete its impact assessment on the topic map the consequences of this program on school participation and active citizenship. Nonetheless, the power of Massimo’s work is obvious to those who attend these neighborhoods, where soccer is without a doubt the most cathartic and important shared experience. By changing soccer’s rules, Massimo is ultimately changing social norms and tackling these systemic social issues at their root cause.

The Person

Massimo Vallati was born in Rome in 1976. Massimo’s love for soccer goes back to his childhood, when he started playing in the under-eleven group. Massimo witnessed the first difficulties directly on the field when he was a kid: players’ agents, transfer market, bets, doping, extreme competitiveness and the general loss of positive values. These things made him lose his faith in sports at a young age.

Becoming part of an ultras group was pivotal for Massimo, since it further changed his relationship with soccer. Only when Massimo became a policeman things change: he realized that the violence inside and outside the stadiums, racism, physical and verbal injuries, which became part of soccer games, were not the foundations of his beloved sport.

In 2005, 23 years after his last kick, Massimo created a brand-new set of soccer rules, Calciosociale, where the values of hospitality, respect, inclusion and diplomacy replaced the traditional ones. Massimo started the redevelopment of a sport centre, now called “Campo dei Miracoli” (The Miracles field), an abandoned area owned by Comune di Roma’s ATER. The renovation project reflects the revolutionary nature of Calciosociale, entailing bio-architectural design and the use of sustainable materials as a key aspect of it. The use of natural elements, as opposed to the concrete and plastic prevailing in Corviale, makes the Centre stand out, right in front of the so-called “Serpentone,” a social residential building built in the 1970s by the architect, Mario Fiorentino. Hemp, wood, clay, while coir, cork and flax seeds are used for the pitches’ infill, and this renders Campo dei Miracoli a national example of public spaces renovation and transformation.

Massimo has undergone several attacks from the Mafia people of the area because he is opposing crime by trying to educate the kids to legality and citizenship. Whenever a difficulty occurs, Massimo gets back up thanks to his entrepreneurial skills and creativity. When they tried to burn down his centre, he created Radio Impegno, a night radio that broadcasts every night with guests from the whole community, who talk about social issues while overseeing the centre at night.