Football – Hope and Homelessness.
Scene: Between 2006 and 2010 I was in college in the UK. I spent my summers in Ireland – because that was how the finance worked (I could explain, but its not relevant). In 2009 my wife gave birth to our first child (in the UK).
Stage I went to the local town park everyday with a football and did “keepie uppie” – not a real word, but you get the idea.
“The Older Man” Rev John Rochford: Some say he is a charlatan, others believe he is the harbourmaster in a haven for lost souls. Either way, he ran the South East Refugee Centre – the most widely used drop in centre for refugee applicants outside of Dublin (The Capital).
“The young hero” My wife always says I am the hero of my own stories, sometimes she is right. Man with ball (singular).
“The Refugees” A motley group of (often young) men and women who live in – what were previously youth hostels, but were bought by the state and “converted” to refugee applicant accommodation. Basically: People from many different cultures crammed together into pretty shitty spaces.
“The Locals” A mixed bag of character actors who engage from the sidelines, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively – in our case, usually positive. Some gems become advocates and strong supporters.
“The Public Representative” A shadowy character, played by a bit part actor, representing here “Waterford Sports Partnership – a government office designed to develop sport in the community.”
The Plot: In Ireland a person seeking refugee status must spend around 5 years going through the process. The purpose of the long timeline appears to be to stop people hopping jurisdiction to the UK, Germany or France, where most people want to go – there is no official party line on it.
In that time a person is usually housed in a “hostel,” given a weekly allowance plus three squares a day. He or she may educate themselves at the expense of the state, but not work. I’m not saying its bullet holes and machete scars, but hardly the Ritz Carlton.
So its not “fair Verona…”
Action: One nice sunny day, outside his office, Rev John said to me in conversation;” you know these guys in the hostel, they have nothing to do all day. They’re young, healthy and most of them are smart capable people. Could you do something?” I remember looking in, through the half shadow of the open door, at a well built lad from Kenya, or Ghana, and thought; it must be shit alright… Ireland, rain, crap food, not terribly exciting women (I might be wrong about the women – most of my African friends like strong Irish girls), being stuck inside all day with no money.
I had an idea. A simple one. Football.
If I took a ball to the local park, people would be interested. I was good at keepie uppie. It would be an unspoken challenge. A challenge that no physically fit Nigerian, Turk, or Khazakstani could pass up, I thought!
I put my plan into action…
Each day, rain or shine – I would go to the park exactly at 5 o’clock. Not earlier, not later.
For the first few weeks, I was perceived as a freak and left pretty much alone. You might say I looked too talented to approach (Ronaldihno, I’m not). Soon enough I became a fixture.
Interesting things began to happen. First the young kids would call for a “shot” – asking me from distance to pass the ball, so that they, too, could show their best tricks. We would exchange passes. Their friends would come over. Soon enough a challenge would come, sweaters thrown down and “pick up” football began.
Park users noticed. Soon enough balls began to appear on a regular basis under arms. People began practicing in and around the same area. Balls would be mis-kicked and retrieved. Conversations started. Jokes shared.
Knowing I was there everyday, people would arrange to come back on the following evening with friends for a “proper” game.
Professional players, ex athletes, small children, young girls, mothers with babies, tough local guys with tattoos and rough Irish ways, all were welcome – because it was only about a ball and a yard of grass. Soon enough the hard core Polish gang were matched up against the equally brilliant, but stylistically opposite, African contingent. Battle commenced – friendships forged – and prejudice broken down. Its hard to call someone names or properly hate if they make you look stupid in a “meaningless” game of football.
The summer drew on. Days became shorter. I had to go back to school. I would see most of the refugee community (oxymoron I know, but give me a better term?) out in the park – if not playing, sitting on the bench haranguing their countrymen and friends – and building connections, getting to know the locals, networking, learning, meeting girls!
Strange things began to happen.
Two Thai brothers, aged 7 and 9, would be out to greet me each evening 5 minutes after I arrived in the park. I thought they were spying on me or were in cahoots with my girlfriend. The actual reason (I was told later by their mother) was that they lived across the street over the fish and chip shop. Watching my daily ritual, they begged their mother to go out and play. She eventually relented. After that, they rarely missed a day – playing on the wings, far enough away from the giant Poles to avoid serious injury.
Some days there would be more footballs than players. We were a magnet for juvenile local magpies – somebody nearly always lost a ball. Sundays were the worst! 50 people, 20 footballs, 1 game – always 1 ball disappeared.
Chrissie – a local boy genius, was the absolute star. 19, twice as good as everyone else, and I mean everyone – he was magic. Two feet, a fantastic engine and the first touch of Jesus on a blind leper, he was a football god. He had one competitor, a true pro footballer who had played in the local team and in the league of Ireland. But they were well matched. One speed and finesse, the other pure power. The only rule – they were not allowed play together!
“Mad Mick,” 52 years old, heavy dope smoker – but what a player.” A man I only knew as “Bufana,” gliding with the elegance of a pro skater on smoked glass. The Czeck girl, in football boots, who never spoke, but never complained either. I could go on forever…
The most interesting thing of all was that real communication started in those “pick up” games. I could tell a thousand stories about how people connected, where those connections led to and how the people involved met through kicking a ball on a patch of grass, but you know that already – sport connects us. Walking down the main street of Waterford (its not big, really), I would meet twenty or thirty people who came to play or watch football in the park – it built community.
The only issue was it all revolved around me – if I didn’t turn up, there was no catalyst, no safe space, no agreed rules. It was law of the jungle once more – no trust. I knew this and thought the best way to evolve it would be to make the program “official,”with proper rules, a budget and the potential to expand it to other towns, villages and population centres.
I sent an email, a second, a third. Called, got no response. No one was in when I went to the office in person, twice. It seemed Waterford Sports Partnership couldn’t care less about my secret sauce, community development or otherwise. I was a bit perplexed, I wasn’t selling anything, nor looking for a job. Until it dawned on me that no one wanted “happy, fit, healthy refugees” – they wanted people housed in squalid conditions – to break them and send them back “home.” Of course, nobody ever said this.
By the third summer, I was the pied piper. The day I would land in Waterford, somebody saw me and word would grapevine around town – football guy is back, lets hit the park. In fact in the third year the park itself was a building site for much of the summer – impossible to play on most of the time. We made do with other venues, but the park was central. The other sites were farther out of town and as a result less people knew or went there. I also had a young philpott on her maiden voyage, so my own priorities were somewhat different. We still had a good summer – but the sands of time were drawing me away from that small Irish town.
The denouement: For three summers we built a real community in Waterford, centred around recreational “pick up” football in the park. It could have been any city or any place in the World. The characters are all normal people, who came together for love of the game. I made great friends, I learned about other cultures. We spent time together “off the field of play.”
Some of the harshest critics, most vocal opponents and most vitriolic haters became, if not friends, understanding adversaries. Community developed, flourished and flowered. People became healthy; mentally and physically. All at no cost to anyone, except time!
The only person I could never reach was the official representative of Waterford Sports Partnership – probably not a football fan ;).
Enjoy the Game!