Football has a long history of bringing people together from different backgrounds
Every trip to Wembley is different. Cup finals, play-offs, World Cup qualifiers, they all live in the memory for different reasons – from my first trip, as an eight-year-old watching Paul Scholes score a hat-trick against Poland, through to last season’s FA Cup final, seeing Arsenal lift the trophy for the third time in four years.
Friday’s England friendly was exceptional in its own way – especially for one group of fans in attendance.
They hailed from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Uganda, thrown together by chance and a little-known FA initiative inviting refugees to Wembley to watch England.
Sitting in a coffee-shop in the shadow of the Wembley arch before kick-off, Izak told his story in broken, but improving, English.
“I was sixteen when I left Ethiopia,” he said. “A child. I had to leave my family behind, but it was no good there, you can’t live.”
His journey to the UK saw him travel through five countries in five months before crossing the channel by boat around his seventeenth birthday. At the age of 19 he is softly-spoken young man with an upbeat disposition.
Yet it was when talk turned to football that he really came to life, whether it was his own exploits on the pitch every Sunday for his college team or his true love, the English Premier League.
“I was able to go to Arsenal once last year,” he said with a sudden burst of excitement. “I always used to watch the Premier League back at home – Thierry Henry was my favourite. And then last year I got to go to Arsenal against West Ham.”
Every mention of the England’s top division sparked up conversations, sometimes even fierce debate, throughout the evening, especially as kick-off drew near.
The group soon was expanded by the arrival of more fans: two Arsenal, two Manchester United, one Chelsea, one Spurs and one Real Madrid.
It was impossible to follow their conversations about their favourite players and teams in Arabic and Amharic (the language spoken in Ethiopia) but they all seemed to agree on at least one thing – Manchester City are going to run away with the title this season.
Walking to the stadium, it was an early reminder of just how powerful a force the game can be. Here they all were, drawn from different places and cultures, speaking different languages, and all they could talk about was football.
The eleven of us were at Wembley at the invitation of the FA, who provide tickets to refugee charities for games such as England’s friendly match against the world champions Germany – a match that had not quite sold out.
In the FA’s words, the tickets were handed out as “part of a wider drive to diversify the crowd at the National Stadium and to support and encourage refugees who want to play football in England.”
At present there are 150 guests around the country, with London the first and largest hub. The fans I joined to watch England at Wembley were all current or former guests who had been housed around the capital, from Croydon to Acton, including the home of my parents who helped found the charity.
Isaac (as opposed to Izak) was the youngest member of the group. An Iranian, whose family came to England to escape religious persecution, he used to be hosted by the charity in Surrey along with his sister and mother, but they have since moved to a borrowed place of their own in Crystal Palace.
While all of our party were keen football fans, Isaac was the most accomplished footballer. He had already enjoyed some success on trial with National League side Maidenhead United and was set to join their youth set-up only for a knee injury to stall his progress. An operation is step to follow, with a long period of rehab ahead.
Walking around the stadium, his knowledge of the game shone through. We discussed the merits of Gareth Southgate’s England side and why the national team had so far failed to follow up on their solitary World Cup win in 1966.
“The problem is that there are so many good players at club level but they just don’t gel properly for England,” said Isaac. Similar nuggets of insight were being shared throughout the seats and stands of Wembley by other amateur football fan analysts.
Inside the ground I am sat with Nesem, who originally hailed from Ethiopia, and his friend Abi from Eritrea. Nesem, a huge Manchester United fan, was devastated to hear that Marcus Rashford had been named on the bench.
Fortunately, he would still get to see his hero in the flesh in the second half. It didn’t deter Nesem from offering his vocal support to England either way, and his passion for his adopted country is clear in abundance.
He kicks every ball. Rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet, bobbing up and down, for every header.
We were both equally frustrated by the inability of certain players to pick the right pass, and each breathed a sigh of relief whenever the opposition’s attacks broke down – or Jordan Pickford flew into action to save the day.
When Jamie Vardy headed the ball home the two of us jumped for joy in perfect synchronicity only to realise our mistake in same split second. Our angle had deceived us, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen had pushed it away. A shame.
Ziad, the Syrian who sat to my other side, was quieter. His journey to England took two years, and, when we discussed it, he named at least a dozen countries he had to pass through on the way to Sunderland – about 3,000 miles from his home.
Given the distances covered, and the number of places involved, one might think that the north east was just one stop of many – but it seemed to have left his mark.
When he found out who had been selected to start in goal ahead of Joe Hart, he eyes lit up: “Pickford!”
He seemed to take personal pride with every save from the now-Everton keeper, and there were plenty of saves to make.
If there had been an ulterior motive to the FA ticket giveaway, this was surely it. Football as a tool to help people integrate into a new culture and community. Hardly a new idea.
The game has been bonding fans from all walks of life together for more than 100 years as labour moved from the countryside to the cities in search of life, mixing workers with the upper classes and travellers, traders, refugees and emigrants from around the world.
Even a cursory glance at the history behind the growth of clubs such as Barcelona, Manchester United and Juventus reveals a range of rich back stories of how different communities were brought together behind a team and their colours.
Nesem and Ziad have only been in the UK for a couple of years yet over the course of 90 minutes at Wembley they couldn’t have been picked apart from any of the other supporters cheering their team on against Germany.
As we left, I began to apologise for the lack of goals – I know it wasn’t a terrible game, but it would have been nice to have had a magical moment to celebrate. Anthony, one of the two guests from Uganda, stops me in my tracks.
“No, you cannot complain about that,” he said. “We had seven injuries, and they are the world champions. This is a good result for us.”
Making excuses to spin a game in ‘our’ favour? Forget Norman Tebbit and his cricket test. These were England fans for sure.
Jonny Singer attended England’s 0-0 draw with Germany alongside Refugees At Home. Visit their official website for more information about the charity and how to support refugees in London.