The red banner was a symbol of togetherness, a message of solidarity with displaced individuals. Alongside it sat eight players, playing for a purpose and for a love of the game. No Borders. No Nations. Just People. The wording was clear and powerful, and FC Kolektivo Victoria began this year’s Leicester refugee tournament.
In 2010 two men had a dream. They wanted fitness, but they wanted a team. Inspired by the AntiRa tournament in Hamburg, they wanted to create a collective of players with a social conscience. After a summer of friendly kickabouts, FC Kolektivo Victoria was born. The name stems from the Esperanto word for collective, and the park where it all began.
I attended my first kickabout in August of 2010, where I was one of three individuals passing the ball around. Numbers grew sporadically. Some weeks we would be inundated with a mixture of intellectuals, punks, local kids and those with a sheer love of the game. The ethos started to manifest itself. FCKV would not tolerate racist, sexist or homophobic behaviour. If you agree to that, let the inclusivity begin.
Having played competitive football since the age of 10, FCKV was like a beautiful blast of fresh air. With my previous team, being called derogatory names was becoming the norm. On the pitch sledging is one thing, being labelled a ‘fucking faggot’ simply due to having long hair was not. Physicality quashed any form of footballing expression. If you were skilful, they’d kick you twice as hard. FCKV enabled me to love playing football again.
Last year, we entered the refugee tournament for the first time, winning friends by an enthusiastic and open approach to all teams. We were eliminated in the quarter finals, but the much coveted fair play award was awarded to us. After years of striving for medals and trophies, this unexpected one was wonderful as it meant something widely different from what I had encouraged myself to aim for. Being sporting and inclusive can outweigh unhealthy competitiveness, but not fully.
With half of last year’s team absent, including all of the goal scorers, expectations were low. A solitary point was the ambition, fresh from a league campaign on the same pitches that saw us slide from 3rd at the half way stage to bottom by its conclusion. To give a flavour of the diversity, the other five teams in our group included an Arabic team, a team from the Leicester Afghani community, a Merseyside anti-racist organisation, a group of youths who have all been in care and use football as a tool of developing positive skills, and a mixture of Portuguese/Iraqi youngsters.
As for us, the team that lined up for this tournament only contained one player who originally hails from Leicester. Whilst on a Sunday we have seen players from countries such as Afghanistan, Turkey, Nigeria, Greece, France and Somalia, the eight man squad was a more British collective. Our goalkeeper, who explained to us all that his Mother had been smuggled out of the Soviet Union aged one and had been shot at by border guards as she started crying, started commiserating with one of the club’s founders who explained that he had grown up in Leeds. The solidarity and ease of the club ensured that more friends were made.
A greater question is raised though. Our goalkeeper, who had a wonderful tournament, has his roots in two nations that no longer exist, the USSR and Czechoslovakia. Whilst in current entities the identities and heartbeat of these lands may be kept alive, it makes you wonder about a world with no nations and no borders. Would the world be free from wars and conflict? Does the very notion of a border, dividing one group of people from another, cause greater harm than good? To relate it to football championships, the jury is still out. For every street battle between Neanderthals supposedly representing their nation, there are groups of fans from across the world, side by side, united in both football and friendship.
As for FCKV, we maintained our friendly approach but lost our fair play award to the Arabic Tigers. Our on pitch expectations were vastly exceeded, as we scored 8 points. Sadly, we missed out on the quarter finals by a point, despite a 5-1 win in our last group win. My hat-trick was my very first in a competitive game. In the middle of a major international tournament, for a fleeting moment I convinced myself that I had made it as a footballer.
Yet, I am a mere cog in a wider machine. For most of the players involved in the Leicester refugee tournament, they had made it. They had escaped a war, ran from persecution, and had the chance to express themselves in a sport that unites. This tournament was borderless, and whilst communities and nations were represented, there was pure equality, and a hugely vital event in the footballing calendar.