football therapy

INSPIRED: Gabbiano founder Mauro Rafaelli. Pic. Peter Dench. © Unknown.
INSPIRED: Gabbiano founder Mauro Rafaelli. Pic. Peter Dench. © Unknown.

If you drove past on the autostrada, and briefly looked down at this little football game in the Bufalotta suburb of Rome, you might not notice any difference to a normal match.

If you drove past on the autostrada, and briefly looked down at this little football game in the Bufalotta suburb of Rome, you might not notice any difference to a normal match.

It's when you get down on the touchlines and have a good look, that you see that there is something strange about this game. Many of the players seem to have a peculiar stiffness in their movements. One or two of them are grimacing and they mumble. Meanwhile, the goalkeeper is crawling across the penalty area for no apparent reason.

The reality is that half of the players are schizophrenics. The Gabbiano club was conceived and brought together by a psychiatrist, as a startling and successful form of psychiatric therapy.

Mauro Rafaelli is the man responsible for the original concept behind Gabbiano. Taking a breather, he steps out of the game he is playing with his patients and comes over to tell the story.

"The notion of football therapy first struck me 14 years ago, when I was working in a Roman hospital, treating one of my patients who is playing with us on the field, Alessandro. I was injecting his legs, and realised they were notably strong, like an athlete's, and asked him if he had ever played sport, and he said 'yes, football'."

This revelation gave Rafaelli the crucial insight that he could reconnect the patients with their happy and healthy childhoods, by getting them to kick a ball around, and even play proper matches.

In its early days, Rafaelli's football therapy encountered real opposition. The managers of the sports grounds did not want guys with disabilities to hang around their change rooms. Some claimed the patients might attack bystanders.

The psychologists persuaded them that such fears were baseless. Since then, the concept has blossomed. Now there are 50 different teams of psychiatric patients right across Italy. They are involved in championships and tournaments. The reason everyone has changed their attitude is simply because "therapeutic football" seems to work.

Rafaelli points at Alessandro, a tall player who looks slightly like Zinedine Zidane.

"Before we got him into soccer, Sandro was truly sick. He was suffering wild hallucinations, and would hear many voices. But most of these symptoms have been ameliorated since he's training regularly."

The second half of the game is about to begin. Before the restart, Rafaelli calls over some other patients. We meet Luca Denei, an ex-security guard. Ten years ago, he tells us, he was virtually catatonic from severe depression. Now he is married with four daughters, and has just started a course at Rome University.

Naturally, football is not a total cure. Another player, 41-year-old Benedetto Quirino, confirms this. He comes from a wealthy and cultured background. He speaks very good English and, ironically, is a psychology graduate. He believes he has greatly benefited from Rafaelli's revolutionary therapy, but remains disturbed.

Quirino tries to tell us about his condition, but his attention wanders off. He appears to hear voices in his head and mumbles to someone who is invisible to onlookers. His agitated face twitches.

It is heart wrenching to watch but at the same time it gives a profound insight into the sheer courage people must discover within to tackle an illness as debilitating as schizophrenia. In the end, Benedetto wanders over to the dugout, muttering away.

When he gets back into the game, the transformation is self-evident. Suddenly he is not at all "outrageous".

He runs around like any normal person and shouts for the ball and shoots at goal.

"When you run out on the pitch, the voices stop," he explains later. "Your opponent is no longer inside you, he comes out and you can dribble round him and beat him."

Another doctor joins us, still out of breath. Santo Rullo works in Villa Letizia, a therapeutic residential community on the outskirts of the Italian capital. Along with Rafaelli, Rullo was one of the creators of football therapy.

He elaborates on the curative process.

"A football team is a social group, each individual has a role, everyone has a social place; rules and relationships are all important. So, when an isolated and excluded person joins a team, it teaches them to live in and with the larger community. That's why it is important that doctors play with the patients, so there is no division between the supposedly normal and the abnormal."

Rullo says, "They don't only use football in their therapy. They still use anti-psychotic drugs, like any modern clinician, but they have discovered that when they employ football therapy, the patients require less medication. This is very important, because the drugs we usually give schizophrenics essentially imitate Parkinson's disease. These powerful drugs block the brain and the body, and reduce mobility, whereas football unlocks people, and gives them energy. Fifty percent of our patients need fewer drugs after playing."