Leicester City and other clubs work together for refugees’ better future

Paul Doyle

It was an atrocity that inspired Picasso’s most famous painting and, more pertinently, a historic U-turn by Britain’s Conservative government. Until the saturation bombing of Guernica 80 years ago on Wednesday Stanley Baldwin, the prime minister, had rejected all calls to accept refugees from the Spanish civil war.

Whitehall had argued that doing so would breach its policy of non-intervention in the conflict. Besides, added Baldwin, “the climate would not suit” people from the Basque region. Then, on 26 April 1937, Nazi bombers, acting on behalf of General Franco, embarked on a mission to annihilate Guernica, a town of 10,000 people. Hundreds were killed, thousands injured and, as the Guardian reported at the time, “even flocks of sheep were machine-gunned”. Demands from the British public to offer shelter to civilians became so strong that the government felt obliged to show compassion despite a small financial burden and its fear of creeping Communism.

A month later a ship, La Habana, left Bilbao for Southampton with 3,860 child evacuees. The British government said it would not pay for any food or clothes but would at least allow the children to stay in a temporary camp near Eastleigh, Hampshire.

Many of those children returned to where they had come from when it was safe to do so but some made a new home in Britain. Some fought in the British Army in the second world war. Six of them became professional footballers for clubs such as Wolverhampton Wanderers, Brentford and Coventry City.

This weekend football clubs across England will use the anniversary of the Guernica bombing to highlight the contribution that refugees have made – and can continue to make – to Britain. The Football Welcomes campaign is coordinated by Amnesty International and supported by nearly two dozen Premier League, English Football League and Women’s Super League clubs, including the top-flight champions, Leicester City. Activities range from organising matches for young refugees to distributing free tickets. The players of Brentford and Queens Park Rangers will be welcomed on to the pitch for Saturday’s Championship match at Griffin Park by a guard of honour formed by young refugee players.

“The response from football clubs has been encouraging,” says Naomi Westland of Amnesty International. “We had hoped to get about 10 clubs involved but over 20 have come on board.” Others, including Colchester United, Stoke City and Oxford United, have been in touch to ask about organising regular activities.

Several clubs have been running such activities for a while, including Arsenal, Everton, Hull City and Preston North End. The schemes are not complicated, nor particularly costly, and make a difference to people’s lives. Abbas Kabir, from Sudan, is one of about 25 refugees or asylum seekers from a variety of countries who go every week to a 90-minute coaching and kickabout session run by Notts County’s Football in the Community programme.

“This has become part of my life,” he says. “Most of my fellow refugees don’t have money to join a gym and so on but we can come here and play football for free. It’s got a nice community feel and really helps people to cope and adapt.” Another of the regular players, Ali, also from Sudan, says that the sessions helped him to overcome his poor English and the sense of alienation he felt when he arrived in the country a year and a half ago. “These sessions really helped me, now I feel like I belong somewhere,” says Ali, who is now studying IT and mathematics.

“It’s about bringing in different cultures and different people and trying to say that they’ve got a place in our community and we can all be as one together,” says the Notts County player-manager, Kevin Nolan. “These guys are getting an opportunity to meet and integrate with people and learn about different things. For us who are involved in football professionally, not giving back would be a shame. The ultimate goal is to give people enjoyment and show we are accepting of everybody.”

Emilio Aldecoa, who fled Spain after the Guernica bombing, went on to play for Wolverhampton Wanderers and here he helps clear snow off the Molineux pitch. Photograph: ANL/REX/Shutterstock

Leicester have also been working since last year to support the integration of refugees and asylum seekers into its local community, involving them in many of the activities aimed at other disadvantaged people in the area. “Football is a way of getting young people’s attention and then there are educational inputs from ourselves, youth workers and the local police,” explains James Lowbridge of the Leicester City FC Community Trust. “It’s one way of helping non-refugees to understand that refugees are not here to cause problems but because it’s a safe haven away from issues they face in their own countries. It’s worked really well and we’ve had no issues.”

Evidence of the successful interaction between refugees and non-refugees came last weekend when the Premier League game between Leicester and Crystal Palace was preceded by a friendly match between teams of young players from the clubs’ Premier League Kicks community programme. Half of the players were refugees. Leicester played a similar fixture earlier this season against a team from Hull City, who plan to host a tournament for refugee teams in June to raise more awareness of the skills and joy that people fleeing from elsewhere can bring to Britain.

Some of those players may even go on to become professional players like six of the children who came from Guernica 80 years ago or current stars who once had to seek sanctuary from war, such as the Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren, the Stoke City striker Saido Berahino and Coventry City’s Gaël Bigirimana, who scored the opening goal in his club’s victory in this month’s EFL Trophy final.

“I grew up in Burundi and lost my father in the civil war there,” said Berahino. “We had to leave the country in the hope of a better life and although I was separated from my mother for two years, I eventually made it to the UK. I’ve been given a second chance in England. I’m so grateful for the support I’ve been given and the chance to turn your life around is something that every refugee deserves.”

From Guernica to the Football League

Emilio Aldecoa Left winger, signed for Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1943. He then moved to Coventry City for two seasons in 1945, before returning to Spain to join Athletic Bilbao and then later, Barcelona. He played once for Spain, before coming back to the UK as assistant manager of Birmingham City in 1960.

José Bilbao Played for Coventry for the 1945-46 season

Sabin Barinaga Inside forward with Southampton’s reserves before returning to Spain and scoring the first goal for Real Madrid in the newly-built Bernabeu stadium in December 1947.

Raimundo Peréz Lezama Goalkeeper for Southampton

Antonio Gallego Goalkeeper for Norwich City

José Gallego Antonio’s elder brother and a winger for Brentford, Southampton, Colchester United and Cambridge United.

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