The Refugee Football Tournament Uniting Cardiff's Displaced Communities
Cardiff has more asylum seekers in accommodation than any other city in Britain. Football is helping to bring them together.
All images by James Baines
Ramy is pacing the touchline as I walk by. He sees my camera and greets me with an inaudible platitude. I ask him whether he played in the first half; he tells me he did. We talk about his side's best player, their right winger, and then I ask him how long he's been in the UK.
The Cardiff Community Cohesion Cup, a football tournament for the city's refugee population, is in its second year. On a sunny Sunday in March, I've taken the train down to watch the semi-finals.
Founded by South Wales Police and organised by the local Horns Development Association – a 'community interest company' incorporated in 2009 to help the Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) community better integrate to life in Cardiff – each team represents a different nationality. This year's semis see Dafur play Yemen, while the Congolese take on the Kurds. Each is vying for a place in the final. The winner of that will have the opportunity to play a further game – the Cohesion Super Cup – against a South Wales Police select XI, which includes former Swansea City striker Lee Trundle.
Mohammed Yusef, the local representative for the Horns Development Association, is helping to put the nets up when I meet him at the Mal Channel View pitches before kick off. He greets me with the smile and charm that has made him a popular and accessible figure within the refugee community.
A 2014 Home Office report revealed that the number of asylum seekers in accommodation in Cardiff (1,923) exceeded that in London and represented roughly 8.1% of the UK total. Last year, Cardiff was recognised as a 'City of Sanctuary' for those seeking protection from war and persecution in their own countries, but Mohammed believes that more can be done at street level. That's where the tournament plays an important role.
"Everything else we can disagree on, but when it comes to sport it's something that brings the community together," he tells me as the teams warm up around us. "We would like to see whether we can bring the local police services and the young people within the BME community [together] and establish [a] better connection so they can understand the services provided."
"The barrier," Mohammed explains, "is perception."
As the teams trot out for their photos, the referees begin the task of trying to convince onlookers to act as linesmen. Standing together awkwardly waiting for their photos to be taken, each team is clearly distinguishable from the next. The Kurdish team are a congregation of young and old; beside the Congolese team, the height difference between the sides is near farcical. To their own amusement, some of the Kurds seek shade under the hulking figure of the Congolese number 12, who may be the tallest person I have ever seen. Naturally, he's playing centre back.
The Yemeni side looks fresh from the academy and take to their warm-up in organised fashion. The Dafuris, by contrast, are less laboured, having turned up about five minutes ago and changed pitch-side. The Darfuri 'keeper dons a shirt so gaudy it evokes memories of Bruce Grobelaar.
During the game the communities seemed to be united; but what are relations like off the pitch?
Fuad Zaid is the Yemeni team coach. When I ask him what challenges they face within the community, he concedes that it's not all perfect, as in any community, but this too can be tackled on the field. "We are united in a way, but there are some of us that are united and some of us that aren't," he explains.
As the games kick off I stray between the two. Staying for a while with Fuad, one of the linesmen-for-the-day, whose grievances with some of the refereeing decisions have a saccharine sense of irony to them. His team are commanding the match and are worth more than a 1-0 lead at half-time. The Darfur side certainly make sure their presence is felt. What they lack in finesse they make up for in total unflinching commitment, avalanching into tackles with the trajectory of bottle rockets and the force of midweek hangovers.
Meanwhile, across the park, the Kurdish team are bounding the ball about like human pinball paddles and playing with a dynamism the Congolese can't match. In the opening exchanges they overload their opponents' back line with timely one-twos and the Congolese are quickly reduced to counter-attacking in fruitless bursts. As chess games go, it was less Fischer/Spassky and more Deep Blue/Kasparov. At half-time, the Kurdish enjoyed a 2-0 lead.
On the face of it, the day had an air of the urbane and absurd that I'd grown accustomed to when playing football growing up. Stray passes, playing through hangovers, oversized kits, linesmen elects, the kid in tiny bear jammies held up to the crossbar to hook on the net, echoed cries of 'Don't foul!' and daisies dotting the pitch markings like five o'clock shadow. It was hard to see how these communities didn't match our own.
Then I met Ramy, a 26-year-old engineer from Darfur. He tells me this several times, patiently waiting for me to finally grasp it while I sweat in the heat of my own embarrassment; I'm questioning the importance of question like 'What do you do?' anyway.
Now, however, Ramy is a refugee.
He asks me if I am married (a girlfriend, I say) and he tells me he has a wife and children. His expression changes – they're back in Darfur. He tells me that he and his government are in disagreement; I let him know that he doesn't have to explain anything to me. He smiles.
The sound of cars across Cardiff Bridge bleeds into the birdsong and the thud of boot on ball. We shake hands and he continues his pacing, only to turn once again to ask if I'm from the Home Office.
The hazy film of nostalgia through which I'd watched the day unfold dissolved. This may feel like a scene from my own memory of Sundays down the park, but their memories, his memories, are those that I can't imagine. Some of these players have been in the UK for no longer than a few days; all of them came from conflict areas. I begin to understand why their minds were elsewhere – and where exactly they might be.
Ramy is one of the many players today, mostly from the Darfur team, who have been or currently are accommodated at the Lynx Hotel, one of the local hostels where newly arrived refugees are housed by the UK Border Agency. While offering asylum seekers the most basic needs – such as food and shelter – it can't quite prepare them for life within British society. That's why, during today's tournament at least, Mohamed Abdul Kareem Ahmed Mohamed, Darfur's Community Leader and Team Manager, believes the players can interact with other members of the community and feel like a part of the city that has provided them sanctuary.
"We hope from this point we can build on, because the objective of this tournament is not to win, it is something bigger; it is about the social integration here in Wales. We have a huge presence here from Darfur, that's why we insist on continuing," he tells me.
Sergeant Gareth Evans of South Wales Police, a co-founder of the Community Cohesion Cup, explains that this is the whole point of the tournament: for players such as Ramy to feel like a part of the local culture.
"Wherever you're from, you are part of South Wales. And we're there to support and help wherever we can." Before I can question him further a tackle and subsequent reaction in the match between the Congolese and Kurdish results in two red cards. Players and fans from both sides surround the referee, but Gareth is already getting between them, trying to calm the situation down.
While the scuffling and shouting goes on behind me, the match between the Dafuri and the Yemeni teams finishes 3-0. Gareth, and the rather shaken referee, make the sensible decision to call time on the other match to save an otherwise unspoilt Sunday from boiling over. The 4-2 final result means the Kurdish will go on to play the Yemenis in the final.
As the teams depart I'm left alone with a long walk back to the station. I try and collect the events of the day but I can't help but replay my conversation with Ramy. Sadly, there is no single optimistic way in which I can sum up the trouble a person can suffer at the hands of their own government.
Nor would those words help. They're just vowels into the void. Only action, like today's tournament, can help the healing process, at least until Ramy and the others can re-join their loved ones at home.
Mohammed Yusef and the HDA hope that next year the tournament will be bigger, and after that who knows? We could be seeing tournaments like these all over the country. While we can't make up for the pain, worry and confusion that asylum seekers face, we can surely welcome a bit more football in the park on spring Sundays as glorious as this.