It was 2013. Somalia was getting dangerous. Mooto had to leave. Starting in Mogadishu, through Ethiopia, Sudan, Libya, then via boat to Sicily, Mooto, aged 17, finally docked in Europe. The journey took a year. It took everything. “I walked, I took transport, I ran,” he said.
Four months later and nearly three thousand miles away, two brothers embarked on a similar journey. From Kabul they fled to Pakistan, from there through Iran, on to Turkey and then by boat to Greece. They finally arrived in Germany, “that month, the month before Christmas”, said Edris, the younger. November, I asked? Bingo.
In Munich he met Mooto met Mukhtaar, a fellow Somali in flight. The two ended up travelling to Hamburg. Brothers Hamid and Edris made their way there as well. Now here they were, the four of them, in the middle of a football pitch a mile away from the city’s famed red light district, trying to protect themselves from a persistent drizzle on an unreasonably cold spring day.
The friendly match between FC Lampedusa Hamburg and a group of fans visiting from England kicked off at 7pm and lasted through the dying light of the late May day, even as the pitter patter provided a steady soundtrack through the evening.
Edris wasn’t playing for Lampedusa that day, not having felt too well, so he was sheltering in the dug-out where the coaches had left bananas, apples and bottles of sparkling water.
Inches away, Hagar Groeteke dictated play from the sidelines, shouting commands in German to young men in the yellow and red striped kit, she herself huddled in a thick jacket reading “Sisterhood”. That might well have been a reference to herself and the two other women coaching the team, all former club level players.
“Difference?” she asked, as we spoke before the game. “There is no difference if you have male or female coaches. If you have a maths teacher who is a woman, is there a difference? No. So we are all football teachers.”
However, her fellow coach Gabriele Kroger noted one path of divergence. “Men are more used to commands,” she said, chuckling as we waited for the rain to abate. “Women less so; they want to discuss first.”
When FC Lampedusa Hamburg first formed in April 2014, it was a loosely assembled unit of men drawn from a group of refugees whose first mooring point in Europe had been the Italian island of Lampedusa. The tiny island, nearer North Africa than Italy, is the first stop for many attempting to reach Europe, and in some ways is a symbol for the current refugee crisis.
In 2013 about 300 of the Lampedusa refugees landed in Hamburg, moving into the punk-swirled, graffiti-studded, proudly political district of St Pauli. The St Pauli Church sheltered 80 of the refugees for eight months, and still flies a banner that reads “Kein Mensch Ist Illegal” (No One is Illegal), reflecting the neighborhood’s support.
In the early days, social worker Georgie P went around meeting refugees. Her questions went beyond asking people how they could be helped; she asked what hobbies they had, and one answer often came up: football. And so FC Lampedusa Hamburg was born.
“It was mainly about giving people the opportunity to play soccer because in regular leagues they wouldn’t be allowed to play without proper papers,” she said.
FC Lampedusa’s mission is emphatic: “It doesn’t matter how our players came to Hamburg, how long they will stay or whether they have official documentation or not … It is our mission to ensure anybody can play in official league competitions regardless of whether they have official papers or not. We want the football authorities to realise that football is for everyone.”
Even as the club accrues new members, and as older ones leave for different cities or even clubs, the name remains. “It’s a symbol for the situation,” said Georgie. “It is about raising awareness in the public on European laws, policies and the situation for refugees.”
The club has about 30 regular players at any given time, and is open to any refugee or migrant over age 16. The kit and equipment is accumulated through donations, and though they don’t have a regular pitch they make do with a strip of field in an adjoining neighbourhood.
Players come from Somalia, Eritrea, Syria, Afghanistan, Colombia, Kosovo … sometimes with experience, sometimes not. But the team topped their league group and made it to the semifinals of the FC St Pauli fan club tournament – a day-long tournament with more than 30 participating fan clubs devoted to the worship of FC St Pauli itself.
The team stood out in its red and yellow kit, making some fine passes and energetic dives in each of the seven-minute long games. As the weather improved, more people gathered to watch. Who are they, I wondered aloud. They have come to watch the tamasha, said Edris in Hindi, a language learnt through voraciously watching Bollywood films – “the spectacle”.
Hamid, Edris’s old brother, was his usual cheery self. The two share a room in a container terminal – a first contact shelter of sorts, for refugees. He had earlier told me he is still learning German so he isn’t yet ready for the job market, while his younger brother will resume school.
Until life finds a more settled rhythm, once-a-week training is that two-hour window of utter peace, a complete escape from reality. “Your mind is relaxed, you feel good,” said Edris.
A group of Germans, swilling beer, stood around tables near the clubhouse end of the park. FC Lampedusa merchandise was on offer: €17 for a jersey, €7 for a tote bag, the sales going towards club finances. “It is a special team,” said Funthe Herren, who moved from southern Senegal a decade ago and was there to cheer the side on. “It is totally international.”
The refugee crisis, although dominated by a large influx from Syria and other parts of west Asia, is alarmingly international. People from the Balkans and from Africa have also been continuously trickling into the European Union. So in camps and shelters, in spaces packed with a dozen identities, languages and contexts, how do you prevent the formation of cliques and cabals along national lines? The football, in its incremental way, helps. “In the daily routine there might be a tendency to stick to one’s own group,” said Georgie. “But here everybody is getting mixed up.”
Sayed, another player from Afghanistan, stood beside her, drinking from a can and watching. “I love it,” he said. “I’ve made friends from everywhere.”
The lure of the beautiful game can be magnetic. Coach Groetke spoke of one boy who was to join his brother in another town, but kept postponing his departure from Hamburg. “His brother kept calling and calling,” she said, “and each time he said, ‘I’m playing football.’ ”
But it isn’t always easy. In March, one of their players was picked up by police in the dead of night and deported back to Bosnia. “It was very sad,” said Groetke. The young boys take it hard when this happens, having formed bonds with the other players.
The club issued a statement denouncing the police action, decrying that this had been done in the middle of the school year and the middle of the football season.
“Besides football our goal is more political,” said Kroger. “We want the government to recognise these people and not send them back to the so-called ‘safe countries’.”
The team plays friendly matches approximately every other weekend during the season, and has participated in smaller tournaments. Though the team made it to the semi-finals of the fan tournament, they lost in the penalty shoot-out. But perhaps the joy of playing was its own kind of reward.
“People say football won’t get you papers or won’t get you food, but for your honour and dignity it is very important,” said Anette Schmidt, an asylum lawyer who remained at the tournament throughout the day to support the team. “It shows you can be a human being, just like everybody else.”
*The players’ last names have been dropped to protect their identities.