Friday, 28 July 2017

A reminder that football is a human right

Game 2, 2017-18

Some of the grounds I referee at are located near accommodation for refugees. A couple of seasons back I walked into a dressing room looking for the home team's captain, and found a man from the container houses next door on his knees praying to Mecca. It must be both strange and challenging when you've been forced to swap your normal house of worship for the grubby tiles of a seventh level football team. Five times a day.

Last night I was refereeing a thankfully peaceful, and mainly uneventful friendly game. My brief pre-match lecture stating that I've a zero tolerance policy when it comes to dissent seemed to work. It's not often I say this, so it may be worth reiterating before every game, though the key will be to follow through. Over the 90 minutes, a few short, sharp words were enough to keep things calm when trouble twice vaguely threatened. No cards, no controversy.

So, nothing much to say about this match. Except that at one point, when standing on the end-line for a corner kick, I noticed three men from the nearby refugees' home watching the game from behind the railing. They were all holding plastic bags with a small amount of groceries. They watched the action intently.

Heavy and heavily
influential book.
Sport, I've long contended, attracts us not just because we want to see which team or individual wins, but also because it represents a benchmark of normality. Where games are being played, wars are not usually being fought. At a recent literary event in London, I was standing before a room of people where I had five minutes to explain why they should crowd-fund my next (possible) book, The Quiet Fan. I held up my battered copy of Purnell's 1972 Encyclopaedia of Association Football (my first ever football book, which I received at the age of seven), and nervously babbled something like this:

"When I first got this book I ravenously scanned its pages of stats and began to memorise the results of historic cup finals. I couldn't understand, though, why there were no results for the years 1916-19, or for the period 1940-45. What terrible things could possibly have been happening during those times that stopped football being played?"

Because as long as there are games going on, life feels stable enough. Organised sport is only
suspended when it's overwhelmed by matters of danger and death.

Getting out of traffic:
baseball means normality
I love the scene at the end of Traffic when Mexican police officer Javier Rodriguez is contentedly watching kids in his town play baseball, thanks to the floodlights he requested from the council to keep young people out of the drugs trade. It's the kind of facility we take for granted in peaceful lands.

So I imagined the three young men who stopped to watch last night's game remembering with melancholy a space in the town or village they grew up in, where they'd played themselves. I thought that maybe they wanted to play again in their new country, but lacked the language, the knowledge or the courage to ask how. From their expressions, I sensed a sullen, silent longing.

Then the corner was taken and my attention was diverted back to the game. The next time the ball went down that end of the field, the three men had left. Back to unpack their groceries in a shared kitchen, thousands of miles from home, in a country where the means of feeling like they belong - membership of a football club, say - are not necessarily denied them. But there's probably a giant leap to be made (trials, paperwork, misunderstandings) that will allow them to come on board.

The rest of us involved in the game ought to feel extremely grateful, and remember that sport is both a leveller and an immense human right that should be available to all.

Final score: 2-7 

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