Lovers of football (and those whose livelihoods depend on marketing it successfully) tend to credit the so-called beautiful game with quasi-magical qualities - bringing communities together, healing wounds, giving dispirited peoples reasons to carry on. Even leaving aside the famous 1969 "football war" between El Salvador and Honduras, plus hooligan outrages too numerous to mention, that's simplistic at best, and a rotten old cliché.
But just outside Atlanta, Georgia, a minor miracle has been taking place for which football can at least share the credit. Five years ago in Clarkston, a one-square-mile town of a few thousand people, a Jordanian woman called Luma Mufleh, estranged from her family when she elected to stay in the US after completing her studies, was looking for a direction in life. She found it when she pulled into a parking lot and saw a cosmopolitan bunch of kids, all barefoot, all foreigners like herself, experiencing the simple joys of a game of football.
She formed a club, the Fugees, from among the town's bruised, battered and bewildered refugee population. "Suddenly you have a family of 120", she told the New York Times reporter Warren St John, who followed the club's three teams and their astonishing coach round for a season.
Clarkston had been a sleepy little place until the refugees arrived. In short order they piled in from all over the world – the Balkans, Africa, the Middle East - and before long a third of the town was composed of incomers. The high school, once all-white, soon had students from over 50 countries. Tensions and conflict were inevitable: the US may be a land of immigrants, but changes that would normally have developed over decades were wrought over the course of a few years.
If the refugees struggled to adapt, so did the townspeople. Clarkston's motto, "small town, big heart", seemed not to apply to its newest residents. An unreconstructed policeman gave it away. "They're in America now, not Africa," he told St John.
Against this backdrop, Mufleh - a heady mixture of Brian Clough, Alex Ferguson and Martin Luther King - has wrought an astonishing transformation in the boys and their families, becoming not just a coach but a surrogate parent and stand-in social worker. A fanatical disciplinarian – "My rules, my drill, my way" – she preaches a philosophy of self-reliance that seems almost brutal at times - but the results are undeniable, and it hardly comes as a surprise that the book has been optioned by Universal Studios.
If it gets beyond that stage, the screenwriters will have their work cut out, as there are a few stories that could be hived off as films in themselves: the struggles of the new, black, police chief, dragging his antediluvian force into the modern world; the Baptist church that was dying on its feet until it opened its doors to the international faithful; the supermarket owner who filled his shelves with the kinds of food the refugee families wanted and found himself drawn into their lives.
The writers will also have a bit to do on the ending. This being raw, messy, real life, the story has no grandstanding climax, though you suspect it might have acquired one by the time the film comes out. Suffice to say that despite everything – suspicious townsfolk, a hostile mayor, a gang culture that competes with Mufleh for recruits – the Fugees are thriving. St John's expertly told account has been described as "heartwarming", as if Mufleh has solved all the problems of multiculturalism at a stroke. Not yet, she hasn't, but she has proved the truth of another football cliché: sometimes it is, indeed, more than just another game.Reuse content