Please note: some originally posted images have had to be removed as they mistakenly showed player's faces and this could cause harm to them or their asylum applications. If you have any images shared, we all kindly ask that you remove them. Apologies and more images will be added when legally available to be published.
We recently previewed the inaugural Liberté Cup, a tournament created to showcase and highlight the plight of refugees and asylum seekers who, all too often, get forgotten as a statistic rather than the people that they actually are. The Cup took place last month and I caught up with one of the organisers to see how it went and what's happening in the future. Here's what Emily Brancher, of Big Balls Media, one of the organisers, told IBWM about how it went, with a little help from Tim Coleman (Copa90), Ary and Joe (Liberté)...
IBWM: Nice to speak to you again. So, how did it go?
Emily: Very well. The turn-out was fantastic in it's size and diversity, with fan groups and teams from across Europe coming to take part and spectate. On the pitch, the quality was mixed but - especially in the latter rounds - was at times impressive. By that point the teams had gelled on a personal and sporting level, and were operating as a unit which was great to see.
By the end of the tournament, there was a noticeable difference in the way people were interacting. It genuinely bridged gaps and allowed people to communicate without language. Despite that, there was definitely some fiery moments - perhaps the most humanising factor of the tournament was that it served as a reminder that everyone has the capacity to act like a bit of a tit on the football pitch (diving, occasional horror tackles - no biggy though).
IBWM: All soon forgotten, I presume?
Emily: Naturally, the feistiness stayed on the pitch - if anything, the resulting camaraderie brought everyone closer together as it so often does anywhere in the world.
IBWM: And the crowd?
Emily: The crowd was surprisingly loud and towards the end there was a very palpable sense of atmosphere. As there were only two teams playing, the squads of fan groups were belting out the songs and generally getting very involved in what was going on.
IBWM: That sounds brilliant. I'm pleased for you all and everyone who was involved. Who won?
Emily: Football Unites, Racism Divides won the final against Freedom United FC in a dramatic penalty shoot-out, taking revenge on them for their 1-0 group stage defeat.
IBWM: How was the stadium and did the players enjoy it? What were attendances like?
Emily: The stadium served the event perfectly, with one open terrace over looking the two pitches. Attendances were good, with real diversity in the crowd. There was also a fair few people who made the trip down from the camp to watch.
IBWM: Did you speak to the people from the camp much?
Emily: After the game was finished, those men, women and children who had come from the camp were gathered around a long-jump pit, chatting to volunteers and taking turns to outjump/trip each other in the sand. The next day, in the camp, we got to compare stories and light injuries. We'd been practising football with these guys three times a week for over a month leading up to it, so it was a great time to talk skills, great moments and epic misses.
IBWM: Nice. It's always good to have a debrief! Okay, last few questions... Which was your goal of the tournament?
Emily: The winning penalty was an absolute rocket into the top right corner. Top bins, for no reason, under that much pressure.
IBWM: Nice! And what was your standout moment?
Emily: The two keepers of each of the final teams, including one lad called Shaka (who is exceptionally fiery), sportingly hugging each other after the final was decided on penalties, as well as a keeper from a different team insisting on Shaka taking and keeping his gloves after he lost the shoot-out, and spending the next 15 minutes picking him up on his shoulders and telling anyone who would listen how wonderful he was.
IBWM: So, I was wondering; how did the local community take it/get involved? We see a lot in the press here about French nationals being pretty tired with refugees and asylum seekers being based in their country (not just French either but the same in Germany, Italy and here in the UK); were there any negative sentiments or feelings?
Emily: There was a small worry before the tournament that the protesters who were blocking the roads would turn up but luckily they let us get on with the day. Some of the locals living near the stadium also came along to spectate which was amazing to see. They usually get a view of the refugees in a bad environment so this was a great opportunity for them to see who they really are.
IBWM: Was that a conscious thing, do you think, like a "this is a sporting day, not a day for politics" thought process?
Emily: Some of the locals living near the stadium also came along to spectate, which was amazing to see. They usually get a view of the refugees in a bad environment so this was a great opportunity for them to see who they really are. One of the local businesses clubbed together to create a 'Fair Play' prize - we loved the gesture and intent and it reinforces our core belief - that football is the great unifier.
IBWM: What have the players had to say about it all?
Emily: The training was very well received by the players from the camp - it punctuated intense boredom and offered a release from the monotony of camp life. Equally, the tournament offered an opportunity to channel that positivity into one day, and to express themselves on the pitch. The photography helped, offering not only a memento in the form of a photo (we had a photographer at the event taking portraits and offering them to the players as immediate print outs) but also the feeling of being immortalised in a sense, in a context that is very positive. Players were keen to share these photos with their families, to show that they're in a good place.
IBWM: And, finally, what are the plans for the future? Do you have any backing or expansion plans?
Emily: It's definitely not the last you'll see of the Liberté Cup. There's plenty of space for this to grow and get more companies involved year after year. We've proven it can be a success so now we can move on to the other refugee camps across Europe. Watch this space.
IBWM: Brilliant! Be sure to keep us in the loop.
Emily: Of course. And thanks for thinking of us.