BY SAUL MARKCOONS

“We hope that there is no need for our project anymore.” Those are the words of Hagar Groeteke, one of five all female coaching staff of FC Lampedusa St Pauli, an all refugee team based in the north German city of Hamburg. “These are people who are excluded for not having shoes,” explains Groeteke, “we care about their legal status and the individual right to stay and play (football) in Hamburg.”

The refugee crisis first became a reality for Hamburg in 2012. Three hundred individuals released from an EU funded detention centre on the Italian island of Lampedusa arrived with temporary residence permits and a small one time stipend.

Almost immediately the local government sought to return the group of predominantly West African refugees, whose lives and careers had been disrupted by the Libyan Civil War, back to Italy. Seeking solace in weekly games of football it was on the pitch that the spirit that defines FC Lampedusa was born. Chanting ‘Here to stay, here to play’ they protested, with some success, on the streets of Hamburg demanding the chance to remain and try to rebuild their lives.

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To aid their protest the refugees turned to nearby St Pauli FC, a professional team in Germany’s second tier, who are world renowned for their punk, anti-racist and anti-fascist tradition. The message was simple; help us set up a team to provide a safe environment and raise awareness for the refugees of Hamburg. The club was more than happy to oblige.

Formally set up in 2014, FC Lampedusa’s mission statement is clear – “It is our mission to ensure anybody can play in official league competitions regardless of whether they have official papers or not.” Support for the team and the refugees has remained strong in the local area. The club works closely with refugee support group ‘We are Lampedusa’ and the St Pauli Church proudly drapes a banner stating “Kein Mensch Ist Illegal (No One is illegal). The Church itself housed up to eighty of the original three hundred refugees for nearly a year at the start of the crisis.

Now training once a week, the team plays in anti racist tournaments and weekly friendlies eschewing interaction with local amateur leagues. As Groetke comments, “almost every weekend we are somewhere networking with brothers and sisters and making friends in Germany and abroad.” In a tournament this May the team played a St Pauli FC supporters group from Yorkshire, winning 2-0. Matches across the country have also attracted other migrants who are keen to see to the club and offer their support.

Staying outside of the regulated local leagues has meant the club can be more accessible and flexible to help meet the needs of the refugees, most of whom are aged between 15 and 30. This according to Groteke is “impossible in any league in Hamburg.” The club has also stressed the importance of the open nature of their training and weekend matches in helping break down barriers within the refugees that may have formed upon ethnic, national or linguistic lines.

The work being done by the club continues as German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has admitted that the nation has lost trust in her liberal refugee policy. This loss of trust, largely in relation to her plans to integrate the million plus refugees that have arrived, has begun to manifest at the electoral ballot. Recent regional elections in Mecklenburg-Vorpommen, Merkel’s home state, saw her Christian Democrat party fall to third behind the anti immigrant Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party and the Social Democrats. The ‘Refugees Welcome’ banners that adorned Bundesliga matches at the start of last season seem a distant memory.

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Integrating the team into the local community and beyond remains one of the clubs greatest challenges. Other refugee teams, like Scotland’s United Glasgow, have opened their doors to local players as a means of forging better links with the community. At present however, Groeteke states that current conditions hindering refugees from joining local teams means that “as long as a team like this is needed we won’t change our concept.” As Groeteke explains the stigma attached to refugees playing football in the city goes beyond legal obstacles. They found that most teams aren’t willing to take a chance on refugees, who can’t speak German, afford equipment and are at risk of being deported. The fact that many young refugees are taught in special schools and not integrated in the local school system also means that they are unable, through friendship or word of mouth, to find established teams willing to take a chance on them.

The uncertain status of those who play for the team bears a heavy emotional weight on those involved, “it’s a nightmare and from time to time we find ourselves really crying.” To lose a player to deportation, unannounced and in the middle of the night, is not an uncommon occurrence. As Groeteke laments “they deport them away from their home, team, friends, school and daily life, it’s unacceptable.” Complaints registered to local police has done little to change the situation. Thankfully in the digital age the connections made can be kept in some part, mostly through social media, “everybody stays as a part of the team forever, it doesn’t matter where they are.”

As Germany, and indeed Europe, attempts to solve one of our generations greatest challenges, self starting grassroots organisations will play a vital role in bringing the local and refugee community together. At a recent preseason friendly versus Sevilla, FC Lampedusa players joined St Pauli players on the pitch in front of 16,000 cheering fans to celebrate the clubs continuing close relationship and the renaming of FC Lampedusa to FC Lampedusa St Pauli. The team now includes players from all over the world and Groeteke jokes that although the thought of a holiday is very distant “we’ll continue to be open to everyone from all over the world, everybody can be a St Pauling.”

To find out more you can visit FC Lampedusa St Pauli’s website and follow them on Twitter @FCLampedusaHH

FOLLOW SAUL ON TWITTER @copapolitics

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