BEIRUT: Amid the unfolding refugee crisis in Europe, where those escaping war have at times faced barbed wire and tear gas, the world of football has provided a welcoming voice and much tangible support.
And while there have been a handful of racist banners held at football games, such as one displayed by Maccabi Tel Aviv fans at a recent match in Israel which said, “Refugees not welcome,” these have arguably been in response to the much louder, friendlier response across the board.
“Refugees welcome” signs have been displayed at football games in Germany – whose government has also been most responsive to the crisis – the U.K. and the U.S. over the last few months, and Europe’s top two inter-nation club competitions – the Champions League and the Europa League – are giving 1 euro from each ticket sale from the first games of the season to charities supporting refugees.
Bayern Munich – hailing from Bavaria, which has been the point of entry for the vast majority of some 450,000 who have arrived in Germany this year – Wednesday launched a training camp for 28 Syrian refugees, to whom they are also providing food, German classes and accommodation.
The club has also donated 1 million euros ($1.1 million) and at a recent game, each player came on with one German and one Syrian child. The club’s chairman, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, stressed that “football also has a responsibility.”
Borussia Dortmund invited 220 refugees to watch a game and Arsenal has donated 400,000 pounds ($600), and is building football pitches in two refugee camps in Iraq.
In one of the most captivating stories of the refugee crisis thus far, Syrian Osama Abdul Mohsen and his son were welcomed on pitch by Real Madrid superstar Christiano Ronaldo after first making the news having been deliberately tripped up by a Hungarian camerawoman.
Spanish football coaching center Cenafe in Madrid have also offered him a job and housing, upon discovering he was a coach in Deir al-Zor before having to flee the country.
Real Madrid have yet to respond to a question from The Daily Star over recent reports in Kurdish media that Abdul Mohsen was an Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front fighter back in Syria.
Some clubs such as the leftist St. Pauli – a second tier German team, that have worked for weeks helping those fleeing to Germany – have long been known for their community-spirited initiatives, so much so that the club has taken umbrage with a new refugee campaign led by the country’s biggest tabloid, the right-wing Bild, saying it was merely a public-relations effort.
James Montague, football journalist and author, said that football clubs have today been so generous in terms of their refugee response as they largely started as community projects. “There has always been a community aspect to clubs. That is how clubs were born: representing an area, a factory and profession,” he told The Daily Star.
“In the case of Barcelona, [they] represented Catalan identity before, during and after the Spanish Civil War, and the dark days of Franco.”
Many European clubs may today seem like money-making behemoths, but their roots are local, social and sometimes political.
“Clubs are just so big now, [they are] multibillion concerns with players who are amongst the most famous people on earth, [so] that they seem more like Fortune 500 companies or huge multinationals,” Montague said. “But clubs were built by the fans, and the fans have always set the agenda as how clubs should respond. Whether it was Liverpool FC backing dock workers in 1990s Great Britain, or German clubs with banners proclaiming ‘refugees welcome’ today.”
Football, he said, tends to quite accurately reflect the contemporary feeling – and that’s not always necessarily positive, as the “refugees not welcome” banners have shown.
“The clubs in many respects are following the public mood, especially amongst the fans. Even if that is anti-immigrant.”
David Goldblatt, also a football journalist and author, said that the attitude among football clubs and fans has largely been positive as that international experience is so inherent to what football is.
“Football is based at so many levels on solidarity: ‘We play the same game despite borders.’ Some of it is real, some of it is bullsh**, but there is this real sense of internationalism in football,” he told The Daily Star.
On a more philosophical level, Goldblatt also believes that in today’s largely individualistic society, football remains one of the last spheres in which commonality is the guiding principle.
“Football in Europe, and to an extent in North America, is one of the last places in a super-individualized, atomized society where commonality has a purpose,” Goldblatt said, framing this as one of football’s enduring legacies.
“It is about being part of a collective, not individual, project,” he said, and he believes this “thinking of ethical principles makes people want to support refugees.”
Fans are, Goldblatt said, “pretty much in every culture everywhere, men from the lower classes and are ethnically mixed,” so more likely to be empathetic to the refugee experience themselves.
Among players, many of whom are international, there is also a “long history of that among football,” he said.
West Bromwich Albion striker Saido Berahino fled Burundi as a refugee, and Chelsea’s former midfielder Mario Stanic was playing for Sarajevo F.C. in 1992 during the Bosnian War before fleeing. Arsenal’s former player Christopher Wreh was a Liberian refugee. Countless others, including many of football’s top names, such as France’s Zinedine Zidane, have been the children of migrants, if not refugees.
Joey Barton, who plays for English team Burnley, and previously Manchester City, recently tweeted that: “We need to accept our share of migrants. Without a shadow of a doubt. We must help.”
Eric Cantona, Manchester United legend, Tuesday went even further, telling French radio he was planning to house a refugee family for two years.
“I’m organizing that with authorities in Marseille,” Cantona told France Inter radio, saying his grandparents’ experience had encouraged him to act on a personal level, adding that he would provide the family with a small house, garden and food, as they would likely be unable to legally find work at first.
“My maternal grandparents were Spanish Republicans who fled Franco by crossing the Pyrenees on foot. That being our story, it certainly played a role.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the influx of refugees and migrants would change the face of her country. It may too change the face of football.