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Tunisia FC Emptied by Mass Migration

FILE: In this May 31, 2014 file photo, a player controls a ball during a game of "altinho," where the goal is to keep the ball airborne while passed amid players.

TUNIS - A Tunisian football club, fourth-division Ghardimaou, said Tuesday it had suspended activities after 32 of its players illegally emigrated to Europe.

"We've halted activities and suspended our matches," the fourth-division Ghardimaou club's president Jamil Meftahi told AFP on Tuesday, blaming "clandestine emigration".

Over the past three years, 32 of the club's players have emigrated to Europe, he said.

The Ghardimaou players, aged between 17 and 22, "either left by sea or went via Serbia then illegally crossed the border into other countries", Meftahi said.

Tunisia is in the grip of a long, worsening economic crisis that has pushed many of its citizens to take desperate measures in search of better lives abroad.

Those heading for the exit have disproportionately come from marginalized areas such as Ghardimaou, an inland rural district near the Algerian border but far from Tunisia's coastal economic hubs.

Meftahi blamed players' "lack of financial means" for their departures.

"We can't afford equipment, shirts or shoes, and the players aren't being paid," he said.

Until November last year, Tunisians had been able to travel to Serbia without a visa, giving thousands of people an alternative to potentially deadly boat crossings in the Central Mediterranean, the world's deadliest migration route.

Parts of the Tunisian coast are within 150 kilometers of the Italian island of Lampedusa, and thousands of people - Tunisians and citizens of sub-Saharan African countries alike -- have attempted the crossing already this year.