League of their own

Organised football in deprived parts of London and other cities is giving refugees and recent immigrants a chance to build a sense of community, explains Steve Wilson

Skipping past a second challenge just inside the op­position’s half, Gazza looks up and sees the keeper marginally off his line. He lets fly from all of 35 yards and peels off in wild celebration. After shipping three cheap goals, this effort, added to his free-kick from a similar range, has pulled his team back into the game and the final ten minutes now promise to be tense.

This is not an Italia 90 moment you have inexplicably forgotten. This Gazza is a 20-year-old refugee from Kosovo, who came to London five years ago in the wake of the Balkan conflict. He plays at the Douglas Eyre Sports Centre in London’s Walthamstow, with a crowd counted in tens rather than thous­ands. There are no TV cameras and the opposition is a team of second-generation Africans. Beyond his nickname all Gazza shares with his namesake is a love of playing football.

Gazmend Puti plays for Barking Youth, a team of Albanian refugees, in the All Nations Football Festival. This innovative football project aimed at increasing participation and widening access to historically excluded groups, primarily refugees, is the brainchild of Alex Welsh, Operations Director of the London Playing Fields Society (LPFS). He explains: “I’d been driving round and in Finsbury Park and Victoria Park you see large groups of young men playing ‘jumpers for goalposts’ football, mainly refugees. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if they could play proper football, with kit, pitch, referee and all that stuff?’”

Using funding from the Association for London Government, Alex held a one-day festival in 2001 and set up the first summer league of 16 teams. Further funding from the Football Foundation and the Home Office Refugee Community Development Fund has seen the league flourish. Now in its third year, it is oversubscribed. Similar leagues are being formed in Leeds, Hull and Manchester, with others in the pipeline.

The aim is to see teams progress into affiliated, constituted clubs playing in organised leagues, building capacity and becoming sustainable. Through a network of organisations working with disadvantaged communities, players are provided with equipment and coaching they would otherwise be denied.

Gazza is one of the scheme’s obvious successes. Initially just a player, he has now com­pleted his level-two coaching course, qualifying him to train semi-professionals. He now coaches Barking Youth and is in charge of the day-to-day running of the league, defining his role as Alex’s “left-hand man”. His calf bears a large tattoo of an eagle, Albania’s national symbol, framed by the words “Albania – Strong and Proud”. This pride does not, however, preclude him from wearing the latest England shirt.

His involvement began through contact with the Leyton Orient Community Sports Programme (CSP) when playing with the newly formed Gascoigne Estate Crew. The CSP are one of the key partners of the LPFS, directly involved with four of this year’s teams and more widely through their football in the community schemes, hailed as some of the best in the country.

The Gascoigne estate in Barking is home to a large Albanian community and the CPS’s work there has produced a successful team. When Alex contacted the Barking Asylum Unit about forming a team to play in the Nations League, Gazza was the obvious choice as coach.

A training session for Barking Youth is no different to most seen up and down the country. The coach lays out the cones for drills. The players, aged 14 to 18, arrive in unmatching kits. Some are here well before the start time. Others turn up late. Those less punctual are scolded for it. During the warm-up exercises, one player claims he cannot do them all as he is injured and is excused. On hearing this, an “I’m Spartacus!” domino effect is created across the squad as the injury is suddenly a contagious one – they take their football seriously here, but they are also teenage boys.

Petrit Elbi, 16, came to England from Kosovo four years ago with his parents and sister, “because of the war”. An energetic striker, he is happy and grateful for the opportunity the Nations League has given him. “I’ve got my level-one coaching badge which I wouldn’t have had a chance to do. I never even thought about it until I started playing in this team.” Like most of his team-mates, Petrit hopes one day to become a professional. For which team? “Arsenal,” comes the immediate response. Not fussy, then? “Well, anyone really, even West Ham, I don’t mind.”

His captain, an 18-year-old imposing central defender called Blerim Durrol, is more succinct in explaining what he gets out of playing for the team. “It’s football,” he says, as if the answer to my question were an obvious one. “I just love playing football.”

Their coach is enthusiastic and an­imated when talking about the good to come out of the project. Effusively he says: “It definitely helps refugees integrate. Football is an important part of English culture and something everyone understands. Most of these people had never played in proper matches. They didn’t know all the rules but every one of them really wants to play.”

The co-ordinator of the team, Fahima Bock, a social worker at the Barking Asylum Unit, agrees: “There is a lot of desire amongst our clients to play, but without the Nations it just wouldn’t be possible.”

Herself an immigrant from Djibouti, a small Af­rican nation on the Red Sea, she recognises that the cur­rent climate of hostility towards refugees means positive stories like this one are growing ever more valuable. “With all the negative things in the media about asylum seekers this kind of project is beneficial not only to the players but across the whole of society,” she says.

Barking Youth’s experience is not unique in a league that draws in teams from China, Vietnam, Sierra Leone, Af­ghanistan and more than one region of Somalia. “We could fill our tournament with Somalians to be honest,” says Alex. “They love their football.”

Success for the league is not meas­ured in terms of results on the pitch. This is just as well for Barking Youth on this occasion. Their spirited comeback loses momentum as, in their efforts to hunt for the third goal that would give them a share of the points, gaps are left at the back. A promising attack breaks down and North London exploit the space to score a fourth and end the game as a contest. Gazza is disappointed but upbeat: “If they win they enjoy themselves by winning, if they lose they learn new things and have to improve on the bad things they’ve done – either way they get some­thing out of it.”

Instead success comes in the form of teams pro­gressing on to affiliated leagues – widening access to groups who otherwise would not have the resources or know how to join the ranks of organised football. Re­search continues to show how giving refugees a fo­cus such as this helps them to assimilate. Others point to how community sports projects aid the fight against drug abuse and crime. But for Alex Welsh integration and crime diversion are not his business.

Through the league these hard-to-reach groups can be reached, widening access and participation, vital for the continuing health of grass-roots football in this country. After that, if needed, other organisations can be signposted to provide assistance with other difficulties the groups might face.

“This is a football project not a political debate,” he is quick to point out. “It is about using the power of football to build a better future for individuals and groups.

“There are lots of people out there who would love to be playing football on an organised basis but for a number of reasons – us­ually economic – they can’t do it. We want to provide them with that. The fact that within that disadvantaged group there are a lot of refugees is incidental.” Incidental but intriguing. Not even Five gives you the chance to watch Al­bania v West Africa followed by Somalia v Viet­nam. At least not yet, anyway.

From WSC 199 September 2003. What was happening this month