When football offered Europe’s greatest asylum
When politics and bullet shells failed to bring peace, football provided the greatest asylum to numerous homeless people across Europe. During the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II, the beautiful game provided solace.
Love is a touch of solitude that can wipe tears from the weariest of eyes. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair once said – “Sport can reach parts politicians can’t reach. It can help in bringing divided conflicts together in a way nothing else can.” Football has just achieved what could not be achieved by any noble political propaganda. It has become the silver lining for hundreds and thousands of refugees and asylum seekers all over the world. The beautiful game has become the key factor to bring back hope to these people which was lost overseas, spread love, build strength and courage and unite them. The loud cry of this uncontrollable human flood couldn’t be suppressed but yet there is hope that the smiles that the game of love has brought beyond borders and races wouldn’t fade away.
“Today the world finds itself facing the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War” , EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos stated in a press conference in August, 2015. By the start of 2016, the number has reached up to 82,636 people according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The biggest reason of migration being the armed conflict in Syria, ongoing violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, abuses in Eritrea, and poverty in Kosovo leading people to look for new lives elsewhere. In such a situation, several European countries have used the power of football to raise awareness and help to overcome the exclusion of refugees and asylum seekers. The goal is to let these people create a vivid image of life, leaving behind the darkness and shattered dreams of past. Football has played a significant role to break down barriers and build bridges between communities. It is the non violent way of providing a sense of self worth setting aside cultural differences. Today, we look at two of the most powerful football nations in the world and how they have used the beautiful game to unite people around the world.
Here to stay, here to play
Germany, which has a war-torn history, has become the home for the largest number of refugees across the world. FC Lampedusa Hamburg is an amateur football team based in the northern German city of Hamburg and comprised entirely of refugees and asylum seekers. This is an unique club beyond the radars of hotly contested European leagues that is leaving a mark by making history.
In the winter of 2012, about 300 refugees, predominately West African migrants arrived in Hamburg. They came from the Italian island of Lampedusa where primarily they were given shelter when they fled from Libya due to civil war violence. When the Italian government stopped the funding, these people were forced to leave the country and they came to Germany looking for their next destination. Initially in Hamburg, they were provided with government-funded shelter, but that was quickly taken away as the government demanded these people return to Italy. They thought there was a sudden influx of refugees in across Europe. The Lampedusa refugees refused to leave the country and first time chanted the slogan that later came to define their team: “We are here to stay – we are here to play!”
With the help of local residents and fans of FC St.Pauli (a football team that prides itself on its anti-racist and anti-fascist tradition), these people were warmly welcomed and given shelter in St.Pauli Church. FC St.Pauli has a team of five coaching staff and all of them are women. They took the initiative to build a new football team with these people and formed a self-organized football club FC Lampedusa Hamburg.
Hagar Groeteke one of the coaching staff explained: “You don’t need papers to live in our city and you don’t need papers to play football”. The team welcomes all refugees and migrants, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation over the age of 16. You don’t need papers to join the team; all you need is the desire and passion to play football. FC Lampedusa neither plays to compete in the big European leagues nor do they hope to win any trophies. Their goal is to make football authorities realize that football is for everyone. FC Lampedusa Hamburg wants to create an awareness and draw attention to the evils of European refugee policy and the situation of refugees in Hamburg, in Germany and in the European Community. But initially they had to face some difficulties.The team started off playing in an amateur league and were pitted against l United Glasgow Football Club, another club that was formed by immigrants and refugees. Most clubs didn’t want refugees playing simply because they couldn’t speak German nor could they afford to buy shoes. Groeteke tried to handle the situation. She consulted some of the players if they wanted to be trained by a regular club, but most of them declined. They clarified that they wanted to play for a team where they will receive equal treatment, and respect.St.Pauli Church took a step forward to provide the team with their very own equipment. Ibrahim, one of the squad members seemed delighted as he showed off his new boots sponsored by the Church. “We love playing football here, this is a football loving country. This is the best time of our life when we go to the training ground and show what we are capable of.” Another popular center-forward said “When I play with FC Lampedusa, I don’t feel like I’m alone. I have many friends here.” People like Ibrahim, Alee have found a new life here, making memories for tomorrow although they are still uncertain of their future. They are yet to receive any valid paper from the government that will validate their residential authority in Germany. Though every new dawn presents itself with new opportunities, they are yet to recover from the darkest hours of their lives when they lost their families. “I have no idea where they are now, may God save them.” – Alee said. Time, they say, is the best healer, but it is the one thing they are uncertain of. However, as long as they are attached to the beautiful game, it will continue to make them stronger and set a new direction to life.
From a purely footballing perspective, FC Lampedusa is maturing as a football team every day. In the 2016 Zabihullah Hakimi Cup, they went up to last eight where they were beaten by another team formed by refugees,Roter Kickers 05 Ahrensburg 0-1. In future they might even win tournaments, but the result is not so important for them as long as they get the chance to express themselves.
All colors are beautiful
11th October, 2015 was perhaps the most memorable day for some of the big names of Italian football and for those who had discovered a new life through this beautiful game. Giuseppe Giannini, Vincent Candela, Alessio Scarchilli, Stefano Desideri, Max Tonetto and many other former AS Roma legends came to the XXV Aprile sports facility ground to play a friendly match against Liberi Nantes, the first team in Rome formed by refugees and asylum seekers. The result of the match was equally unbelievable as the entire event. Trailing 0-2 in the half time, Liberi Nantes went on to draw the match 3-3.
Italian football is not free from racism. Players like Kevin Constant, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Mario Balotelli have gone through that in recent years. Despite certain measures taken by FIGC and the Government, when racism could not be eradicated totally, a common man came forward. His name is Alberto Urbinati, a diehard Lazio fan. “I’m a football fan. I used to go to the stadium to watch matches but I didn’t like certain atmosphere. Fans doing racist chants. So I thought something has to be done to stop this using the same tool, football. That’s when I decided to found Liberi Nantes.”
When Alberto Urbinati decided to form the club in 2007, he went to different detention centers across Rome. Initially many of the refugees had no idea what he was talking about. But as soon as they came close to the beautiful game, they realized that life can indeed be beautiful in many ways. Daniela Conti, President of Liberi Nantes explained, “Liberi means free and Nantes is a Latin word which means sailor. Our logo is a sea turtle which represents the thought that everybody has the right to travel.” Realistically though, people are not free (yet). They are and will be bound by the man-made imaginary lines drawn between lands. And when someone has to cross that line in their need to live, they face a certain tragedy. Mohamed Singhateh, one of the defensive midfielders of Liberi Nantes, shared his horrifying experience when he crossed the Mediterranean sea. “I am from Gambia. I used to play football there. I left Gambia in 2012. Then I came to Senegal, from there to here is a long journey. It’s all risky and it’s all smuggling. The people who help us to cross the border keep us hidden in a place until the time comes. Sometimes without food, may be only water for days. When the day comes, we cross the sea in a wooden boat with about 800 people from different countries. I have seen so many people pass away in the journey, some of whom I had become friends with.” The team is mainly formed by people from Gambia, Mali, Togo and Ivory-Coast who have an uncertain future; people who are waiting in the detention centres for years to receive their papers and earn the right to live in the country.
Salvatore Lisciandrello is the coach of Liberi Nantes. He dreams of making some of them future stars to represent their country. He had prior experience of coaching refugee teams elsewhere in Italy so he offered his service to Liberi Nantes. He motivates his team by saying that if they want to help themselves in this difficult time, football is the way to understand how society works. “Liberi Nantes plays in the Terza Categoria, the bottom division in Italy. If I remember correctly there are 9 or 10 promotions before getting to Serie A. So you see clearly, it doesn’t matter if we win or lose but of course they feel a little bad when we lose…” Salvatore explained. But even if we are optimistic, we must think rationally. Even if Liberi Nantes gets promoted, they will never be allowed to take part in Serie A because of too many foreign players in their team. But that was not why Salvatore or Urbinati started the team in the first place. The purpose is to make the players and the people associated with the club, forget about their difficult life and hope to create a better one. It brings people closer. Gora Ndiave is another player in the club who also works as a scout. Whenever he finds any refugee or asylum seeker interested in football, he brings them straight to his club. He thinks it’s better to come and watch them play than doing nothing back at the detention center. The calm environment benefits everyone who is associated with the club.
Having supported by little donations, Liberi Nantes has managed to get lease of the XXV Aprile sports facility ground at a cost of 100 euro per square meter. They use it to practice football and improve their skills. They came second for the second consecutive year in the Terza Categoria League. But, most importantly, they are creating dreams for those who seek to find a new life. They are helping those people who wish to overcome the shame of being rejected by society. Football here is not only a sport but a way to create hope for a new life.
More recently, two short films are being made (one of which is being made by The Guardian) on how Liberi Nantes has become a relevant name to hundreds of homeless people in Italy and how they have used the power of the beautiful game to unite people. We can only hope that they manage to find the right amount of attention which might help more people earn the right to live and right to play the beautiful game.
“I knew that we could bring a lot of people together. More than politicians. The country is divided because of politicians; we are playing football, we are running behind a ball, and we managed to bring people together.” – Didier Drogba.
Ernesto “Che” Guevara once said “Football is a weapon of revolution”. Such revolution can only bring liberation, peace and spread love. It’s not only about the 11 players who perform on the pitch but millions who live the moment off the pitch. Football has played its role in dramatic human crises for the recovery of human dignity, personal reconstruction and friendly relations. All over the world, more such teams like Atlético de Pinto in Spain, United Glasgow in Scotland are coming up and they are involved in this noble cause of using the power of football to raise awareness. People all over the world have joined the movement. European giants like Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid are widely supporting the cause. AS Roma is supporting Liberi Nantes in their attempt to stem the crisis.
Humans have drawn the imaginary lines, divided people by their tongue or skin color but there remains the mighty leather ball. A lifeless object which has indiscriminately infused life and spread love among millions of living beings. It continues to make us believe that we may belong to different lands, speak different tongues but our hearts beat for the game of love, the game of football.