Around 300 Tunisian football fans, who have threatened for weeks to emigrate to Italy in protest over sanctions against their club, boarded fishing boats Thursday (November 12) and headed out to sea.
Brandishing Tunisian flags and those of their team, Croissant Sportif Chebbien (CSC), they chanted as they sailed out of Chebba port, accompanied by the coast guard.
The Tunisian Football Federation (FTF) on October 17 slapped a one-year ban on CS Chebba, citing an incomplete and late application dossier. CSC chief Taoufik Mkacher has been in a months-long dispute with FTF chief Wadie Jary, publishing a series of Facebook posts criticising a lack of financial transparency and calling for an audit at the federation.
The dispute escalated when reports emerged that Jary, head of the FTF since 2012, would run for the presidency of the sport’s Africa-wide governing body (CAF). When the FTF announced on October 17 that CSC would not compete in the top league, Chebba residents staged demonstrations and a general strike, and some vowed to leave the country in protest.
“Given the silence of the authorities, residents have decided to leave the country and head for Italy,” said Mohamed Ali Abbas, member of a committee set up to organise the expedition.
The committee had set up a tent at the city’s port, where more than 2,000 people signed up for the voyage.
“This is an unorganised migration bid… there is nothing symbolic about it,” said Moncef Lahmar, a member of a CSC support team.
Five boats carrying the football fans were seen leaving Chebba port but as they reached international waters coast guards asked them to stay put or go back to the harbour, an AFP correspondent said.
Two boats refused to heed the orders and continued to make their way towards international waters, the correspondent added.
The protest had been put off several times but as the November 22 start of the season approaches, some Chebba residents decided to go ahead.
The would-be migrants had “embarked on a deadly adventure to re-establish their rights,” said sociologist Mahdi Mabrouk.
“Economic development indicators in the Chebba region are low and football is the only opportunity” for residents, he added.
Tunisia, struck by an economic crisis and skyrocketing unemployment even before the coronavirus pandemic, has seen a spike in young people making risky attempts at reaching Europe.
Between the start of 2020 and mid-September, more than 8,500 people had been intercepted trying to reach Europe by sea from Tunisia, including 2,104 non-Tunisians, the ministry said.