Migrants in Greece have set up a football team to earn recognition and through their skills combat racism and xenophobia.
By Evan Bourtis
In the December 2021 finals match of the Anexartito.com Summer Cup, organized by Greece’s largest amateur football league, Nkwocha Chinonso Nelson constantly pressured the defense.
The forward for Greek Forum of Refugees F.C. drew rival defenders with his speed, giving teammates a chance to shoot at the net’s corner without getting blocked. His teammates found the net twice under the lights of the pitch in northern Athens.
‘If I stay up front, I stand as a threat. So, they keep close to me while other players can go and score,” he said.
A year and a half later, Nelson still remembers how hard his team fought against Sklavenitis F.C., a team that has taken first place in many tournaments.
Nelson was born in Nigeria and lived in Dubai, before coming to Greece 17 years ago, with the intention of becoming a professional football player. He lacked the documentation he needed to sign professionally but served as a captain of an all-migrant team that has won against some of Athens’ top amateur clubs.
The football club competes for the Greek Forum of Refugees, a non-profit that helps migrants and refugees to actively participate in society. Nelson has been with GFR F.C. since its beginning in 2018, attending practices in Athens’ neighborhood of Kypseli in between his shifts as a DJ at an African club.
He said the team earned recognition during the 2021 cup, winning several playoff matches to reach the finals, where the team lost 2-3.
The team didn’t have enough funding to enter the 2023 Anexartito.com Cup but continues to hold practices several times a week and recreational games. New players have recently joined the team while others, including Nelson, have been on the team since its beginning.
Jerry Bolum, also a team captain and a defensive midfielder, said the team has allowed its members to play the sport they love and find supportive friends for overcoming challenges.
“The minute we come to the field, we forget about everything. We come together as one, one team, one family, one belief,” he said.
Football unites migrants in Greece
Most of the team’s roughly 25 players were mostly born in sub-Saharan Africa – including Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria – or Asia. Through practices, newly arrived migrants interact with people who have been in Greece for years.
Jerry was born in Nigeria and played professional football in Syria before coming to Greece 15 years ago. He, Nelson, and others have helped to feed their teammates when they don’t know where their next meal is coming.
They also give advice to migrants struggling with a lack of documentation, which can make finding a job difficult and signing with a professional Greek club football impossible.
When Nelson arrived in Greece in his 20s, he was invited to the trials to play professionally for PAS Giannina F.C. in Ioannina. Nelson said that although he passed the trials, his pink card, which proves he applied for asylum, wasn’t enough to allow him to sign. Seven years later, Nelson got his residence permit but during that time, his focus shifted away from playing professionally.
“It’s really frustrating to see a lot of young people who would have a good future if they had the documents. They could play in some big teams,” he said.
For migrants who are unable to sign professionally, GFR F.C. has given them the chance to remain competitive and receive coaching, Nelson said. The team, funded nearly entirely through donations, couldn’t afford the fees to enter this year’s tournament. However, Nelson is hopeful that the team will return to competitions next year to showcase its talents.
Nelson said the team is like a family. He spends time with his teammates on the pitch but also invites them to his home to have conservations and laugh a little.
During the summer, Jerry leaves Athens for his work as a public relations representative on the island of Corfu. Even when away for work, he keeps in touch with his teammates.
“Football to me is life, it makes me happy. When I’m training, it’s like I see my brothers again,” Jerry said.
The perfect tool for interaction
Christos Lazaridis, the Greek Forum of Refugees’ communication consultant and team manager, helped start the team in 2018. He said that for some migrants, football is one of the few constants in their lives.
Five years ago, Lazaridis saw two refugees, Kobe of Cameroon and Abdelaslam of Sudan, passing a ball with several others at an Athens football pitch. Lazaridis spoke with them – joking that with a name like Kobe, he should play basketball instead of football – and learned that both had played football since a young age. He also learned Kobe traveled two hours by bus to get to the pitch from his refugee camp. Abdelaslam’s commute was almost as long.
Lazaridis said the stories these two refugees shared were the inspiration for the football club. He envisioned the team as a tool that could help migrants to make connections and allow his organization to map the challenges that migrants face.
“I know that sport is the perfect tool to build your character,” he said. “It’s a perfect tool to associate with more people, to interact with a local community.”
Soon, practices began and Alepotrypa Field in Kypseli was filled with a mix of chatter in English, French, and Farsi. Since its beginning, the team has been led by the charismatic head coach Kennedy Ehiozee, a former professional football player for Aries Thessaloniki who was born in Nigeria.
Jerry said Coach Kennedy values respect on and off the field and doesn’t let language barriers tear apart the team. While Coach Kennedy speaks in English during practices, team members who speak both English and French will interpret his instructions for the French-only speakers.
Migrants in Greece speak out against discrimination through football
Lazaridis said the team has allowed its members to earn recognition and set goals. It has also given its members the courage to self-advocate, especially for addressing discrimination.
Migrants in Greece have experienced racist insults or violence, including at the hands of the Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi criminal organization whose members were put on trial. For example, back in 2013, about 20 Golden Dawn members attacked migrants at a community center in Athens.
Lazaridis said that members of the team have witnessed racist incidents in the streets, the bus, and even the football pitch. As Lazaridis describes, the team was playing in the 2022 Anexartito.com Tournament when an opponent acted in a discriminatory way during a match.
GFR F.C. withdrew from the match to express how unacceptable the behavior was. Lazaridis said the team only wants to play football their way, with respect between opponents rather than division. After the incident, the opposing team called on the player to either apologize or be expelled.
“We raised our voice because we don’t just represent ourselves but we represent a whole community,” he said.
Lazaridis also expects teammates to respect each other. During the club’s early days, an argument after losing a match led to some teammates exchanging threats through WhatsApp. Through Google Translate, Lazaridis uncovered that the messages included plans for teammates to fight each other late at night.
Lazaridis intervened and the next morning he told them that, if they ever treated their teammates with such lack of respect again, the team would vanish immediately. He gave the athletes two days to decide whether to return. Those who did return came back hugging their teammates.
“I had to speak harsh to them because I needed to set up a mirror for them to take a look at themselves. Not as they are but as they can be,” he said.
Nelson said football can help to overcome barriers. Nelson speaks English and considers Lionel Messi his favorite football player. While many of his teammates root for different players, speak different languages, and were born in different countries, they’re all united by their passion for football.
“On the field we understand each other. We don’t need to talk, the ball talks for itself,” he said.