What I Learned Trying to Become a Pro Footballer in the UK
I think you have to be a bit faster and stronger, if you want to play professionally in Europe.
Helal Al Baarini. All images by Simon Hadley.
Helal al Baarini is 21 years old and a native of Homs, Syria. He fled to Jordan in 2012 and came to England in February 2016.
I'm a refugee, but I'm also a footballer. I play for Bilston Town at the moment – a team near where I live in Birmingham. I'm a midfielder and I can play on either wing or behind the striker. Some of my teammates call me 'Coutinho', because I have the same style as him – I can score goals but I focus mainly on creating chances, and I get a lot of assists.
It's been my dream to play in England ever since I was a little boy – I think the Premier League is the strongest league in the world. I support Liverpool but I'd love to play professionally for any club here. I'd play for whoever gave me a chance.
I'm originally from Homs. My brother and I fled the war in Syria in 2012 – my parents wanted us to leave our family and get away from the violence and the fighting. At the time I was playing for Al-Karamah SC, one of the top clubs in the country and one of the oldest sports clubs in Asia. I first joined Al-Karamah when I was 7 years old, and ended up playing for their Under-17 team. Before I left Syria, I was even named best player in the Under-17 league. Life was good before the war started. It was hard for us to leave the country, but the war had destroyed everything we loved, everything that was familiar to us. It was dangerous to even just walk down the street.
When we left, I was 16 and my brother was 18. We got on a bus to Amman in Jordan because my brother had a friend who lived there. We spent four years in Amman – eating, sleeping, living together in one room. I had a job making coffee and was working hard to try and save some money, but everything in Jordan was very expensive. We never had any money, it was very hard. Every day, I went to training or to the gym. To save money I'd walk eight miles to get there.
For the first two or three months I was training by myself, but then Al-Faisaly SC, one of the top clubs in Jordan, held a trial for new players. After the first training session they invited me to join the club, which I did. While I was playing for them, the Syrian national team asked me to join them, but I told them I couldn't go back to Syria. I would only be able to join them when they were playing in Jordan or Lebanon. In the end, I played two games with the Syrian national team against Lebanon.
While we were playing in Lebanon, the manager of one of Al-Karamah called me and asked me to sign with them. I had to refuse again – I was signed with Al-Faisaly in Jordan, but mostly, that too would mean I'd have to go back to Syria. At one point, I joined our Syrian national team when we tried to play in a competition in Palestine, but we weren't allowed to enter the country because of our Syrian passports. The team went back to Syria and I went back to Jordan. I played for Al-Faisaly for a year and a half, and then in the first team of Dar Al-Dawa.
Last year, the United Nations helped my family come here to England. My parents and our little sister came to Jordan to meet us, and we all flew here together. My father is a mechanic, but he hasn't worked since his recent heart attack. My mum is a nurse, but she isn't working at the moment either, since her English isn't good enough. They're both learning English at the moment. My brother is studying Computer Science at Birmingham City University and my sister, who is 13, is in school. Me, I'm studying for a level 2 qualification in English. I plan on doing a foundation year or an access course in Sports Coaching.
When I first moved to England I was playing for Continental Star, but I left them to play for Bilston Town. A few months ago I had the chance to try out with Birmingham City. My caseworker at the council called them and told them I was a footballer, so they invited me to train with them. I enjoyed it and they were happy too, but they didn't sign me because they had already signed other players in the same position. I'd love to get another chance at a great club – I know I can prove myself if they'll let me.
Although the game is the same, playing football in Syria is very different from playing in England. In Syria, if you're under 20 and the coach likes you, you sign on for five years and you'll earn about £250 a month. You can't leave before the end of that five-year term, and everyone earns the same. When I went to Birmingham City, it was a completely different world. The grass, the changing rooms, everything was different. In Syria, we don't play on natural grass, but on 4G artificial grass. I think you have to be a bit faster and stronger if you want to play professionally in England. Where I'm from, we don't have any players signing on for £10 million or £25 million contracts, even though we do have good players.
Health and safety regulations are another big difference between football in the East and the West. One time, while I was playing in Jordan, a player died during a game. I was on the pitch when it happened – he hit his head and swallowed his tongue, similar to what happened to Fernando Torres a couple of months ago. But in our case, the ambulance arrived late and didn't bring any oxygen, which meant he didn't survive the injury.
People here in England have been very friendly and supportive towards me and my family, which I really appreciate – I've made a lot of friends playing football and studying here. I feel safe and in the end, that's all Syrians are looking for – to live somewhere safe, like the people of Europe. We're living in an area of Birmingham called Handsworth, which is very different from Syria. But everyone has been helping us. When I first came here, I didn't speak any English. That has changed, I can talk to people now.
The war in Syria destroyed everything for us. It destroyed buildings, it destroyed dreams. I hope to be able to go back to Syria one day, but I think it will probably be a long time before I can. Although I hope to play football there again, my ambition is to play here and become a professional player in England. I hope I get a chance to show people what I can do.
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