From the Spanish civil war to today’s Calais crisis, clubs and fans have a history of support for those fleeing war, says STEVE SWEENEY
TENS of thousands of fans have crossed the Channel to follow England, Ireland, Wales and Northern Ireland at football’s European Championships which kicked off in France on Friday.
The chances are that on their route to the host cities, many will have unknowingly passed by the refugee camp in Calais known as “the Jungle.”
The slogan of the tournament, “Le Rendezvous,” echoes that of previous competitions in an attempt to underline the unifying force of football in bringing people together as part of the “football family.”
While governments have stood idly by, the response to the refugee crisis from football supporters and football clubs has been very different.
Supported by a range of football organisations, including the Football Supporters Federation, Football Action Network, Football Against Racism in Europe, Football Beyond Borders, Kick it Out, the Hope not Hate campaign and the fanzine When Saturday Comes, Philosophy Football organised a convoy under the slogan “Refugees are our Football Family” that took thousands of much-needed scarves to the camp in the winter of 2015.
Progressive amateur club Dulwich Hamlet organised a solidarity match against FC Assyria to raise funds and collect aid for refugees with support from local councillors and the local labour movement.
In Germany, Bundesliga club Borussia Dortmund invited 220 refugees to a Europa League match where supporters held massive banners with the message “Refugees Welcome” — a bold statement in a political climate that at that time saw refugee shelters attacked by the resurgent far right.
Bayern Munich have donated around €1 million to help refugees and established a football camp with the intention of providing “financial, material and practical assistance,” including German lessons.
One of the most inspiring stories from Germany has been that of FC Lampedusa, named after the Italian refugee camp that most of the players came from.
Set up with the support of progressive club St Pauli of Hamburg, the club is made up of refugees under the slogan “Here to Stay. Here to Play” and the entire coaching staff are women. Similar clubs are being established across Europe.
In January, Greek second-tier clubs AEL Larissa and Acharnaikos held a sit-down protest in solidarity with refugees and slammed the EU-Turkey deal which has seen children drown in the Aegean as they try to reach Greece.
Supported by both clubs, an announcement said: “The administration of AEL, the coaches and the players will observe two minutes of silence just after the start of the match in memory of the hundreds of children who continue to lose their lives every day in the Aegean due to the brutal indifference of the EU and Turkey.
“The players of AEL will protest by sitting down for two minutes in an effort to drive the authorities to mobilise all those who seem to have been desensitised to the heinous crimes that are being perpetrated in the Aegean.”
The two biggest stars of world football, Leo Messi of Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid, have both expressed their support and solidarity with refugees.
Argentinian Messi described the refugee crisis as “unthinkable in the 21st century” and called for a rapid solution to the tragedy.
Ronaldo, known for his support of the Palestinians, echoed Messi saying that “nobody in the [Portuguese] national team is indifferent to Europe’s refugee crisis.”
A Spanish academy gave a job to former football coach Osama Abdul Mohsen, who was tripped up by a Hungarian reporter while carrying his son in scenes that went viral as they fled a detention camp.
In emotional scenes, his son was cheered onto the pitch at Real Madrid’s Bernabeu Stadium by 81,000 supporters.
The players wore T-shirts in solidarity with refugees and the club donated €1m to the cause.Refugees have long played a role in enriching football in Britain.
During the Spanish civil war, the evacuation of Basque refugee children saw 4,000 arrive in Britain.
As David Cameron and the Tories opposed the amendment to the Immigration Bill that would have seen 3,000 unaccompanied Syrian children given safe passage into Britain, it was Tory prime minister Stanley Baldwin who in 1937 opposed the evacuation of Basque refugee children to Britain.
Public pressure forced Baldwin into a U-turn.
Colonies were established across the country as, despite yielding to pressure, Baldwin refused to give any financial support to the Basque refugees. Instead it was left to ordinary people and the labour movement to organise collections and aid.
It was one of those Basque refugee children, Emilio Aldecoa, who became the first Spaniard to play professionally in Britain, making his debut for Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1943.
In Cambridge, local teacher, NUT member and future MP for Epping Leah Manning established a colony and one of the evacuees, Tony Gallego, went on to play as a goalkeeper for Cambridge United and Norwich City.
The similarities with today are clear.
Then, as now, it was ordinary people who came together to help those in need in the face of an intransigent Tory government.
On Saturday, the Convoy to Calais will be taking hundreds of vehicles across the channel in a huge show of solidarity with refugees, bringing aid but also making the same demands of the government that were made in the 1930s amid a humanitarian crisis unfolding across Europe.
As the Basque children fled bombs, many of the refugees today are fleeing a desperate situation where homes and lives have been destroyed.
As the tournament continues in France, the camp remains as young men with the same dreams and passion kick a ball around on a glass-ridden sandy pitch. French President Francois Hollande would prefer that the refugee crisis is ignored as the recent clearances saw homes destroyed and conditions worsen.
The tournament slogan “Le Rendezvous” could easily be dismissed as a corporate slogan, no different from those of other companies and organisations attempting to make common cause with people that in reality they are far removed from.
But the real “football family” is embodied in the humanity and solidarity shown by fans and clubs across Europe.
Football supporters will be among those joining the Convoy to Calais on Saturday June 18. Hundreds of vehicles will be leaving Whitehall at 9.30am in a huge show of solidarity with refugees. The convoy was initiated by the People’s Assembly, Stop the War, Stand Up to Racism and is supported by trade unions including Unison, Unite, CWU, FBU, PCS, TSSA, Aslef, faith groups including the Muslim Association of Britain, charities Humanities, Care4Calais and War on Want, other organisations including Momentum, Barac and the Woodcraft Folk. Further information can be found at www.convoytocalais.org.