In January 2018, Ullet Road Church Rebels were formed in Liverpool. The Rebels are the first club to field an 11-a-side football team in league competition exclusively consisting of refugees and young men in the UK asylum system.
As club secretary, I have kept a diary that tells the story of the Rebels and its players: the development of the team, their progress and setbacks on the pitch, and the personal struggles that some of the players have negotiating the hostile environment of the UK asylum system.
This is the 12th in a 13-part series of instalments from that diary. This week, the theme of violence rears its ugly head again.
I have been asked to give a guest lecture on Ullet Road Rebels FC and the global refugee crisis at my university this week. As I keep a diary, I present some diary excerpts that graphically describe the threats of physical and verbal violence that have been directed at our team. Looking at my textual descriptions, as they hang on the projector wall, I am shocked myself. I expect the students will feel the same. But several don’t.
Students that have been involved in grassroots football are surprised that I am so shocked. Apparently, it is normal. They tell me about all the incidents they’ve seen. I listen and then talk about the Rebels. I tell them that it’s a peace organisation, so it has to reach out and build mutual understanding. I admit the chances of doing this on the football field are limited, but I tell them that I go into schools with Rebel players to talk about refugee issues with young people.
After the lecture, I meet one of our players, 17-year-old Majid, for something to eat. I have known Majid for a couple of years, but I don’t know much about his back story. As we talk, he tells me the truly horrific tale of young people’s lives in Eritrea. He also tells me about the ordeal of his Mediterranean sea journey, where he saw other people suffer and die before his eyes, “We just sat there and everyone cried.”
Majid came to the UK as an unaccompanied child. His mother died when he was young. He tells me that he has no idea if his father is alive. There have been times when I have wondered if setting up a refugee football club has been the right thing to do. I don’t want to expose the lads to yet more violence. Then, Majid tells me what the club means to him. “When I play football, I forget everything that happened to me. I am just relaxed and excited and I am not worrying about anything,” he tells me. He says the Rebels are now his family.
On the way home, I call Phil, who has shared my moments of despair. I tell him about my conversation with Majid. We reflect on how our own feelings contrast with Majid’s feelings about the club, which he sees as an experience of ‘family’ rather than hostility. It’s a lesson for both of us. It also gives u a boost. Everything seems positive and we are playing Hartson Celtic, a team that narrowly beat us on the opening day of the season, on Saturday.
Tsering is one of the first players to arrive in the dressing room, as I lay the kit out for the game. The lads’ time-keeping is good again, so Pete gives the team talk and reminds the players of our previous result against Hartson Celtic, a narrow 2-1 defeat. This is a winnable game.
With all that done, we’re ready to hit the pitch 40 minutes before the scheduled kick-off time of 2pm. As Pete and I stand talking at the side of the pitch, one of the Hartson coaching staff appears.
“The referee hasn’t shown up,” he says.
“Who is it?” I ask.
“Les,” comes the reply.
“Les! He was here over an hour before kick-off last week,” I say.
But not this week. Unbelievably, our friend, Les, is a no-show. We’ve never been in this situation before and don’t want to abandon a game our lads want to play, so we discuss the options. One of the Hartson coaches suggests we referee one half each. Pete and I look at each other and decline the offer. Then they say they can referee the whole match. Pete and I look at each other and, using some subtle body language, come to a mutually agreed position. They can do it.
The game starts and we are in really good shape: Larry is organising the back four and we have a solid midfield three. Hassan and Tejani are anchoring it and Beraki is pushing forward to support a front three of Hussam (centre-forward), Maher (left-forward), and Saad (right-forward).
In the dressing room, Pete emphasised the importance of a quick transition from defence to attack. His coaching is clearly working: Beraki and the front three, supported by the two full-backs, transition from defence to attack as a unit, and quickly. It’s impressive to watch. We have the better of the opening 20 minutes and look threatening each time we go forward. Hussam scores the opening goal from about 25 yards out, to put us 1-0 up.
Then, it all falls apart.
It’s not so much Hartson’s equaliser that knocks us out of our stride. It’s the combative style of the(ir) ‘referee’. Binyam is the first to experience him shouting and swearing in his face. It leaves Pete and me feeling uncomfortable. We’re hoping it’s a one-off, but then there is a clash between Larry and the ‘referee’ over an offside decision.
A crowd of players gathers in the middle of the pitch, pushing and arguing with each other. The referee demands Larry’s substitution or else he will issue a red card. Larry is having none of it. He tells the referee that he doesn’t manage our team; Pete will make those decisions. The referee responds by reissuing his threat to send him off. It’s an unpleasant encounter that, from our point of view, has come about as a result of biased and aggressive refereeing.
Nevertheless, Larry is withdrawn by Pete, who wants to take the sting out of the match. We manage to reach half-time at 1-1, with everything still to play for. During the break, the referee comes over to shake Larry’s hand and welcome him back onto the pitch. It’s a nice gesture and one the game badly needs.
Within a few minutes of the game restarting, we are 3-1 down. We come back into it, but are unable to score. Meanwhile, they get another two goals to make it 5-1. The bad-tempered nature of the game continues, largely fuelled by the referee. There are several flashpoints, in which the referee goes face-to-face with some of our players, turning the air blue in the process.
Eventually, enough is enough. With ten minutes to go, the game descends into chaos. Another refereeing outburst results in the Hartson goalkeeper suggesting the best way to settle the game is with a fight. In the midst of the melee that ensues, I manage to catch words with some of the Hartson lads, who look as bemused as I am.
The game is abandoned in the 80th minute, with a 5-1 scoreline. “Well played,” I say to the Hartson lads I am talking with. I say the same to one of their coaches, who responds in kind. The referee then comes over, so I shake his hand and we have a brief chat. It reminds me of the Stanford Prison Experiment, which shows how good people are capable of doing bad things in certain situations. It’s something that applies to all of us. I know this ‘referee’ and he is a good bloke. But, his refereeing has led to this situation. There’s something about football in this league that makes aggression part of the fabric, a cultural thing.
Back in the dressing room, Pete emphasises the positives of the lads’ performance. However, he’s embarrassed by what the lads have had to endure in the league this season, so apologises to them on behalf of the city. This is from a dignified and understated man that just doesn’t do drama.
I totally understand where Pete is coming from and say so. Larry, who is from London, agrees. He says, “There’s something about the football in this league that I’ve not experienced before.” We all agree that we can’t go on like this. Unfortunately, we’ve got FC Terri next week. We’ve already had problems with them and they’ve just been accused of racism!
Coming up in Part 13: Happy Christmas (War is Over)
If you have enjoyed the short stories in this series, you can read the full and unabridged story in ‘Football Without Borders: The Lives and Times of a Refugee Football Club’, which is now available here.
Ex-Everton goalkeeper, Neville Southall, describes Football Without Borders as “a beautiful book [about how] people who have fled their own countries for fear of death or torture find happiness as a football team, supported by a handful of remarkable people.”
Twenty-five percent of proceeds from the book are being donated to Asylum Link Merseyside.