This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
In many cases, immigrant communities in the United Kingdom now go back several generations. With cultural influences from all over the world converging in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, those communities are now reflected in the fundamental fabric of British life. One way in which the contemporary character of society is made manifest is through the medium of football, with teams from our domestic top tiers to the lowest echelons of the grassroots game attesting to the heterogeneous, multiethnic nature of modern Britain. Some of those teams wear the colours of a diaspora football club; a club which can trace its heritage to a nation, region or people overseas.
There are diaspora football clubs up and down the UK, varying wildly in size, support, finances and following. What they all have in common, however, is a distinct cultural heritage, and an identity that reflects entwined roots in this country and elsewhere. In an effort explore these identities further, we've spoken with coaches, players and founding members of diaspora clubs with a wide range of different backgrounds. You can read the rest of our diaspora series here.
In the bleak political landscape of contemporary Britain, there is no easier way to score political points than to make empty assertions about immigrants. None of our political parties seems to have a sensible stance on immigration as an economic phenomenon, as it stands, though there are several who are more than happy to make populist capital out of whipping up anti-immigrant fervour. Though there are many diasporas which are coming to terms with slow-burning hostility in the UK, there are few immigrant communities that face mainstream denigration quite like Romanians. Nigel Farage doesn't want to live next door to one. The right-wing tabloids have taken a predictable stance. Even in the term 'Remainians', so often utilised by Britain's burgeoning population of Pepe frogs and egg avatars, one can see the way in which Romania has been arbitrarily associated with opponents of the Brexit movement and, by association, everything that is wrong with the European Union. It's not an easy time to be Romanian in this country, as evidence of various hate crimes can attest.
What the average person of Romanian heritage thinks of all this, one can only imagine. In amongst the sweeping generalisations and general scaremongering, there are thousands of people trying to get on with their lives. One of those people is Ion Vintilă, founder of diaspora club FC Romania. While he gets on with managing and coaching the team, he also sees the side as representing Romania on the football pitch. As such, he and his players look to win over the neutrals, both through a progressive approach to the beautiful game and through wearing their Romanian colours with pride.
FC Romania were established in 2006, not long after Ion first settled in England. He founded the club with a group of workmates and is, to this day, the first-team manager. They originally played Sunday League football on Hackney Marshes, but quickly outgrew their humble origins. They soon switched to Saturday fixtures, and so their rise up the league pyramid began.
The club now competes in the Essex Senior League, alongside the likes of Barking FC, Waltham Forest, Basildon United, Stansted and Clapton. Nicknamed 'The Wolves', they have performed well in the ninth-tier of English football during their relatively brief spell at that level. Having joined the Essex Senior League ahead of the 2013/14 campaign, they have finished fifth, sixth and third in the three seasons since then. While they are currently 12th in the table, their foray into the regional leagues can certainly be deemed a success.
When asked about his role in founding the club, Ion says that it started out as a small enterprise amongst friends. "The idea was to play together, enjoy playing the game and have a chance to get together socially as well," he says. "I also wanted the club to give a positive image of Romania, which is why I chose the name FC Romania, so that people would know who we were." While finances are still the main obstacle facing the club, their support amongst the Romanian community has grown significantly. Having hopped between home venues for the first few years of their existence, they now groundshare with Cheshunt FC at their 3,000-capacity stadium, Theobalds Lane.
While FC Romania certainly aren't filling the ground week on week, they draw support from the local area as well as the broader Romanian diaspora. "We are a family on and off the pitch," says Ion. "We have made many new friends along the way, not only other Romanians. We now have some English people involved in the club, and we all get together and talk football as well as enjoy each other's company." In that sense, the club's culture is a blend of Southeastern Europe and suburban Hertfordshire. "The players have tremendous pride in playing for FC Romania, because we feel like we are representing the nation in England, as well as the people who now live and work here," Ion adds.
"Still, although this is important and we will always have that, we are in England and playing in an English league. We know we have to adopt an English mentality, and become more English in what we do both on and off the pitch. The combination of both cultures is what will take us forward, and that is something which is unique to us at the moment."
FC Romania wear the same colours as the Romanian national team – red, yellow and blue, the three colours of their national tricolour – while their fans are known to wave Romanian flags and sometimes set off colour-coded smoke bombs, the latter of which Ion tells me has occasionally got them into trouble with the FA. While this reflects their national football culture and is one way of expressing their identity, Ion also says that their brand of football is intrinsically Romanian. "We have managed to succeed and reach senior football by keeping to the traditional Romanian football that we have all grown up with. We play neat, passing football, keeping the ball on the ground and in our possession as much as possible. We play with the love of football in our hearts, we play to excite and we play to win. When you can combine that with a close team camaraderie, then you have a good chance."
When asked whether the team has ever encountered discrimination from the opposition, Ion is composed in his response. "Of course, from time to time, we come up against some intimidation which is focused on discrimination, but in football it is not unusual for the opposition to try and put you off your game," he says. "There will always be someone who will not accept who you are or what you represent, and they will make themselves heard. However, we are proud of who we are, and we ignore any attempts to distract us from what we want to do. That is to play football, and to win games."
More than just play football, however, Ion seems determined to create a positive perception of Romania on the pitch. "We like to think that we are winning people over with our of football," he says. "We get a lot of compliments on our game, and that has helped a lot of neutrals and opponents to accept us. Some sections of the English media and one political party in particular…" – the same party which devours taxpayer money and spent last week punching each other's lights out at the European parliament, we assume – "…have gone out of their way to paint a negative image of Romanians in the UK, and this led to some people viewing our team dimly. But as we have progressed many of those negative opinions have definitely changed, and things have improved."
While a diaspora football club might seem relatively niche to the outside observer, Ion has big ambitions for FC Romania. With a blend of Romanian culture and English influences, he thinks the club has huge potential to grow and climb the leagues. Despite the difficulties that the Romanian community face in Britain at the moment, he seems to feel that the club can appeal to a wide range of fans while still preserving its connection to its founders' homeland. "We plan to make the best of [a combination of cultures]," he says. "Providing we can be united, the sky's the limit for FC Romania in the English football league."
Read more articles on diaspora football clubs here.