A haven for the forgotten

From the Horn Stars to Congo Brazzaville and Tamil Athletic, everyone is welcome at Walthamstow's festival. In a small corner of east London, refugees and asylum-seekers are putting their problems aside ­ if only for now, says Julie Welch
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The Independent Football

John Barnes is cheerleading for it, the Refugee Council backs it, and a rainbow assortment of sides is actually doing the business of taking part. The Nations' Football Festival is a first. It is an eight-week tournament aimed at teams made up of asylum-seekers and refugees, with 16 sides competing on the recently tarted-up all-weather surface at the Douglas Eyre Centre, a rescued set of playing fields surrounded by some of the few bits of foliage left in traffic-choked Walthamstow in east London.

There are the United Warriors of Islington, who came to the United Kingdom as unaccompanied minors after they were orphaned or otherwise separated from their parents. There are Afghan Youth, ECL Youth (Ethiopians), the Romanian Eagles, the African Francophone Dolphins, the Angolan Cascais. Congo Brazzaville take a bow as Diable Rouge and Sri Lanka as Tamil Athletic. There are Sudanese Youth, Somalian Youth and Praxis Panthers who can boast a multitude of nationalities.

Horn of Africa is represented by Horn Stars; they are the ones playing in the yellow and navy Arsenal away strip. "It's excellent, it's positive and it has got a lot of our community out," says Ali, their 18-year-old midfielder and vice-captain who already has the self-assurance and zest of a guy going far. "We could have fielded two teams. We play with other people but it's not as good as playing with your own people. We understand each other." These are sentiments echoed by the Horn Stars' 17-year-old captain and centre-back Guled, already accepted into Wealdstone's Football Academy and talking of the chance of playing semi-professionally.

Then there are the Gascoigne Estate Crew, a mixture of refugees and non-refugees who are from not just the UK but Turkey, Ghana, Congo, Kosovo, Albania, Portugal and French Guyana; what unites them is that they live on the same estate in the London Borough of Dagenham and Barking, one which bears the dubious distinction of being one of its poorest and most deprived. The team themselves, formed from turn-up-and-play sessions on the estate and at Barking Abbey School, have played a blinder, pocketing the Barking and Dagenham Young Citizens of the Year Award and touring Holland during May half-term. Two of the side, Renaud Przedziecji and Louis Frota, have recently received playing invitations from the Essex League semi-pro club Stansted.

So many bodies are partners in the project that reeling off the names is like an Oscar acceptance speech, but here goes: the Leyton Orient Community Sports Programme, London Borough Grants (who wrote the cheque), the Refugee Council, London Playing Fields Society, London Football Association, the Football Foundation, Sport England and the Peabody Trust. But the prime mover behind this ingenious way of combining a football tournament and self-help is Alex Welsh.

In the Seventies he was a goalkeeper at Peterborough and he then spent 10 years as a PE teacher ­ "I escaped in a wooden horse". Into what? Well, he is the author of two books on the goalie's craft, works for the Arsenal Academy three days a week (he had a dozen games for the reserves when George Graham was desperate) and most relevantly he is the facilities and sports development manager with the London Playing Fields Society, a suitably Victorian name for a charity established in 1890 to safeguard playing fields from development and "to provide sport and recreation for the working classes".

Welsh got the idea while driving around London and noticing all the large groups of young men playing those jumpers-for-goalposts games in public parks, sometimes 20-a-side. "I thought, 'wouldn't it be nice if they had a decent venue and if they were empowered to carry on and join the football family. They love football so why aren't they in there?' That was the basic idea behind it. I'm a football person who loves seeing people enjoy football. I'm not an anorak who watches every match on the telly. I love to see people come together, see the joy in their faces, and if we achieve that, if we've raised everyone's expectations and they're going to be fulfilling their potential. At the very worst, they can just go back to jumpers-for-goalposts in Victoria Park. No one's going to be lassoing them and tying them here."

Small wonder that the tournament was over-subscribed. These are people who would normally lack the money to take part in sport. "Refugees are very disenfranchised from society and have difficulties getting involved in the wider community," says Jean Candler of the Refugee Council. "They are trying to survive on very little and don't speak English, and those living on vouchers can't afford even concessionary rates for sports activities."

During the tournament, training is being provided for coaches, secretaries, managers and referees ­ the courses are being run by Marian Marinica, a Romanian refugee known to all as Hagi, though he hasn't quite got the left foot. Incidentally, the coaching will be for the FA's Junior Team Manager's course, a basic introduction in coaching written in 1994 by none other than Alex Welsh. Through its assisted places scheme, the London Football Association will support anyone who wants to go on to get their FA coaching certificate, which is real job currency. For those teams who feel ready the London FA will create a brand new division of the London Intermediate League for September 2001. Meanwhile, some of the tastier players to emerge will be cherry-picked for a representative team to play Cambridge University, plus a couple of games with Enfield and Stevenage Borough, so it will also be a shop window for them to break into a level higher up the football pyramid.

The Nations' Football Festival will be happening from now until 13 July; you can catch up on news on its website www.bbc.co.uk/londonlive. The hope is that it will take off nationwide and the plan is to do it again in 2002. This one will feature new clubs because, as Alex Welsh says, "by then the ones playing in this year's will have joined the football community".