African Immigrants Find a Home in a Spanish Soccer Club
Joaquin Rodriguez was looking for something to help preserve his sister's memory. He found it in a team of immigrant African soccer players.
All photos by Matthew Bremner
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There was a long silence.
Some of the players had tears in their eyes, and for a while no one looked at anyone else. Mohammed Cammarati buried his chin in his chest; Hamza Chafi pressed his face into his hands, and Abdel Bouilli stared vacantly up at the ceiling. The changing room was narrow and dimly lit. A dirty yellow light flickered on the players' faces, and the thick stink of muscle spray and sweat lingered in the air. The men wore red warm-up jerseys, white shorts, and yellow socks. On each man's chest was a badge in the shape of the African continent, with "Alma de África" emblazoned on it.
The only man to wear something different was the coach, Pepe Correa. In gray sweatpants and a pink polo shirt, he walked up and down the dingy room with care. In his right hand, he carried a crumpled sheet of tactics, and his left ticked nervously. He too was flustered. Not quite sure of how any of this had happened, not quite sure what to say.
Then, tentatively, he started to speak.
"Today, in spite of it all, we leave this changing room united, as a football team..."
The players were not part of an ordinary football team; they were the first club comprised of African immigrants to play in Spain—or, some even said, the world. They were all amateurs and enthusiasts who, in their home countries, had been carpenters, barbers, and boxers. They came from Nigeria, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Morocco, and Senegal. Some were Muslim, some Christian, and others atheist. They represented a patchwork of nations, languages, and religions sewn together like the panels of the football they chased so tirelessly. And today was their first competitive game.
"The match is all about forgetting, at least for these 90 minutes, all that you have gone through and are yet to go through," Correa continued.
The players had experienced so much: persecution at home; the hope of escape to safer countries; the torment of their journeys; disappointment with their new homes; and the reasons they could not return to their old ones.
Their lives were full of suffering, but they also knew that people wouldn't understand—theirs was a stale brand of anguish. People had heard it all before, and even if they were sympathetic, there were some 750,000 stories like theirs this year alone. The refugees' misery had moved from tragedy to statistics.
And that's why, sadly, ironically, they counted themselves lucky. In their case, someone had wanted to help them, to cast aside the data and grapple with the personal, to humanize the dehumanized, and to do all this by putting football jerseys on their backs.
"Today, in our first match of the league, as we will be in our last, we are Alma de África." Correa finished.
The players all joined hands and huddled together in a miasma of sweat and nerves. They began to chant:
"Alma, Alma, Alma, Alma, Alma de África!"
The men burst apart with a roar. Nerves. Bemusement. Happiness. Aggression. Pride. It was all there, wrapped up in the acrylic-itch of their new jerseys. Christian Loris, a 27-year-old Nigerian crossed himself; Kameni Raphael, a respected veteran, muttered apprehensively into his left shoulder; and Abdel Boulli continued to stare at the ceiling.
Watching all this was Joaquin Rodriguez, a 52-year-old local from Jerez. He was a reserved man, with a contemplative gaze, a nervous shake, and salt and pepper hair. And today he stood in the background, away from it all. Yet, his position on the periphery was not indicative of his place in the story. This had all begun with him.
IT had been a long day at the hospital, and Joaquin Rodriguez, known to his friends as "Quini", sat at the reception desk waiting out the last hours of his shift. He had already dealt with one emergency that day, and still dressed in his blue paramedic jacket, he hoped there would not be another one.
At least for now the quiet had returned. Quini couldn't hear anybody in the staffroom nor anyone in the far away wards; he only noticed the weird hum of the evening stillness. He was tired and grateful for the silence. He needed to organize his mind, to make sense of everything that had happened in the past year. His father had recently died, and his death had left Quini confused, distracted and angry. Now, his sister Macar was ill, and her suffering was only adding to his misery.
As he was staring through the door Quini's gaze fixed on a dog, a small, shivering spaniel. It had no collar, no sign of an owner, and it seemed malnourished. Roused from his stupor, he went to find it some food.
The dog ate greedily, and Quini was pleased to be able to help it. But he was too tired, too caught up in his own problems, to give it any more of his attention. He returned to his desk to think.
The dog, on the other hand, did not leave. It sat there, staring at him, lowering its head pleadingly and trying to catch his gaze. At first, Quini thought the dog wanted more food, and so, was inclined to ignore it. However, when he left the hospital that night, the dog followed him. It followed him down the road and to the door of his car. It even tried to jump onto the passenger's seat. Quini was touched, and he was tempted to see it as a sign. But he wouldn't take the dog, he told himself. He knew the death of his father and the illness of his sister had left him too susceptible to sentimentality; to acts of love he was in no state to backup. So, instead, he drove home, leaving the dog on the side of the road.
Around this time Quini's sister's condition was worsening, and there was little hope she would survive. Quini visited her most days at her small house on the outskirts of Jerez. There, Macar would sit by the pool, in the shade of her favorite willow tree, reading and waiting. She, too, was a nurse, and she knew she was going to die. She was stoic and had a dry sense of humor — a humor she often used to trivialize her predicament. Quini admired her resolve, and he admired her. But he still wanted to help to ease her pain.
That's when the spaniel came to mind. He had been reading that dogs were an excellent source of palliative care and that their presence could lessen a person's discomfort. So, Quini decided to take the dog home with him when it turned up during his next shift. He named it Alma (soul) de Macar, after his sister, and gave it to her the following day as a present. She was delighted.
Shortly after, toward the end of 2013, Macar died.
Quini had prepared for the death, but he hadn't been prepared for how it would affect him. Unlike his father's passing, which had left him bewildered and angry, Macar's death made him feel anxious. His head was a tumult of desperation and despair, but also, more bizarrely, of fierce determination. He wouldn't let her disappear, not just like that. He would keep her alive in any way he could.
Quini wasn't a religious man, in fact, he hated God. His favorite line he borrowed from Nietzsche: "God is dead." Nevertheless, he was contemplative and curious. Since his father's death he had been attending meditation courses across the country. Some of these were overseen by Buddhists, others by respected psychologists and neuroscientists. And they all told him that a good way to remember a loved one was to preserve their spirit, their principles, in a project or idea that was befitting of them.
Macar had always been a philanthropic person, someone who had done a lot of volunteering and who had always demonstrated a desire to help those less fortunate than herself. Indeed, she had left a small sum of money in her will to be spent on a social cause.
Quini knew that the dog would die someday and that if he wanted the memory of his sister to survive, he would need to find something else. So he decided that he would take charge of his sister's social project and find that something.
ON one Sunday evening, Pablo, Quini's eldest son, wanted to play football. Quini's ankle was sore, but Pablo had been camped in the house all day, studying for his exams, and was insistent that they leave the house. Quini relented, and the pair made their way to an old polo field in the center of Jerez known as the Pradera Hípica de Chapín. It was a large, dusty expanse, surrounded by lurching palm trees and Colgate-white apartment blocks.
A group of African men were playing on a makeshift pitch in one of its corners. Quini recognized some of them as the men who sold tissues at the traffic lights near his house. He encouraged Pablo to play with them, citing his ankle as the reason for not participating. The men put Pablo in goal while Quini watched from the sidelines.
Moroccans hacked at each other in Arabic, Nigerians pecked at each other in Pidgin English, and Cameroonians whooped at each other in lilting French: 15 against 15, on a pitch three-quarters of the size of a standard field and cut up with deep divots. They pushed and shoved, tripped and barged, gesticulated and dived, but when they played, they played well. Disorganized but effective.
Quini was intrigued, and at that moment an idea occurred to him. He thought maybe he could help these men, get them a referee. Maybe he could even make them into a competitive team. There was definitely enough skill; all they lacked was someone to organize them. Admittedly, Quini was not a well-travelled man; he was aware he knew little of the world. He never had much cause to leave Spain. But he was curious.
Quini returned the following week and approached the players with a proposal. The first members he met were Christian Loris, a 27-year-old Nigerian, and Kameni Raphael, a 37-year-old Cameroonian. These men were the group's de facto leaders. Quini told them he would try to find someone to referee their games, he told them how he might be able to investigate getting them some proper footwear, and also, how he might turn them into a competitive outfit.
Christian and Kameni were surprised and skeptical, but not so cynical that they weren't open to see where things might lead. They thanked Quini for his kindness and waited, but did not hope, for something to happen.
Christian's life had taught him to be wary of grand ideas.
SINCE he could walk, Christian Loris had played football. He played in the streets of his hometown in Nigeria, at school, at college, everywhere and whenever he could. He was a good player, or so his coaches told him, and he had the potential to play in regional leagues. However, his parents were against his footballing ambitions. They bombarded his dreams with notions of hard work and education. And in the end, their perseverance won; Christian stopped attending practice, and although his passion never faded, his skills did.
Some years later, after he graduated from college, he opened up his own barber shop and enrolled in a business administration course at the local university. He was a respected man in his community; he had friends, enough money to live well, and for a while, things seemed to be working out.
Around this time, however, his home state of Delta was becoming more dangerous. Corruption was rampant. He started to feel uncomfortable and was no longer sure if the monotony of cutting people's hair and plowing through textbooks was worthwhile. It definitely wouldn't be if he couldn't get in with the right people.
However, there was a glimmer of hope: Europe, the land of fortune, of public health, neat Nordic homes, tidy British manners, Spanish siestas, French food, and German efficiency. Of course, this was propaganda from foreign tourist boards and media companies, who had left out details of the difficulties and hardships many immigrants faced after emigrating to Europe. But it seemed like a utopia to Christian, a land of opportunity flickering through his bashed-up television in his small living-room. It was too much to resist. He would leave his home and go to Europe.
In late 2006, he travelled north from Nigeria to Niger. He paid a small fee to the local mafia and was crammed into a jeep full of other migrants. This took him as far as a smuggler's compound, known locally as a ghetto, in the Nigerien city of Agadez. There, behind mud-brick walls and a large metal gate, Christian was guarded day and night by smugglers with machine guns. He was one of the thousands of migrants who had come to the trading hub of Agadez as the first part of their journeys. Indeed, by 2013, some 3,000 men and women like Christian would travel through the region every week.
It was hot. It smelled of sweat and shit and the people were starving. Christian listened to the harrowing stories of his fellow travelers, saw the hope in others like himself, and he saw the despair of those who had been on the road longer. Some were headed to Italy, through Libya, and others, like him, were going to Spain, through Algeria and Morocco. Christian didn´t know when he would be able to leave. He had to trust the smugglers, who told him they would depart only when it was safe.
The runners came after four weeks. They were Arab, most likely Tuareg tribesman, but Christian couldn't be sure. He paid them some 250 euros and they loaded him into an old 4X4 among barrels of water, bags stuffed full of possessions, and a dozen other clammy bodies. In this brume of perspiration and fear, Christian made the two-day trip across the Sahara desert to Algeria, passing through numerous checkpoints, fearing he might get caught at each stop.
From Algeria, he crossed the border into Morocco, where he stayed for nine months, working odd jobs in strange places and saving enough money to pay for the final stage of the journey. In the end, with the help of money wired by his family, he was able to pay the Moroccan mafia 1,300 euros to cross the Mediterranean to Spain.
He left the Moroccan coast on Dec. 27, 2007 on a small Zodiac inflatable more than a year after he had left Nigeria. Sixty-five other people were on the boat with him, including a 3-month-old baby. Everybody was nervous. Most were terrified and some cried. They had heard of the deaths and the bodies washed up on the North African coast. They had also heard of people who had made it to the other side, only to be caught by the coastguard and sent back home.
Christian reminded himself of the images on his TV set, of the hope and the promise that they had given him. It always made him feel slightly better. But then, halfway across, the boat stopped, and that hope was broken. The engine died, and the inflatable was at the mercy of the current for what felt like hours. People panicked. They cried even louder, and Christian thought his journey was over.
Fortunately, the boat started again, and Christian landed the next day on the Spanish coast. Although some of the passengers, including Stanley Okiore, who would later play for Alma de África, escaped to Almeria, Christian was caught and detained in Algeciras for 34 days. After the authorities released him, he made his way to Seville. There, he sold trinkets at traffic lights and looked after his friend's dying mother. However, as Christian's Spanish improved, his situation worsened.
By this time, it was 2008, and the worst economic crisis since the late 1920s was sweeping across the world. Spain was one of the countries most affected. Suddenly, there were no jobs, just increasing discontent. Back home, his father died, and he had no money or papers to allow him to return. He began to regret that he had ever come.
But rather than give up—he had sacrificed too much for that—he decided to move. He wanted somewhere smaller and cheaper, where competition was less fierce, and people less indifferent. He found Jerez de La Frontera, a city of 210,000 people south of Seville—a place famous for its sherry and its horses, but not necessarily for its burgeoning cosmopolitan culture. Nonetheless, the move proved wise.
In 2011, he set up shop at a traffic light near the city-center, selling tissues and whatever he could get his hands on. He worked from 7 a.m.-6 p.m. every day and sometimes he would fill in as a bouncer at a local bar. Members of the local Nigerian community would often help him pay his rent when he was short of money. Eventually, he got his resident papers and had a child with a Nigerian woman he had met in Spain.
He also reconnected with the love of his youth: football.
One day while out walking, Christian stumbled upon a group of immigrants playing a game at the Pradera. They were disorganised and often disgruntled with another, but they played with a passion that Christian felt in himself. He wanted in. There, he met Kameni, a 37-year-old Cameroonian ex-boxer, a stern but kind man with a life story very similar to his own. The two became friends and the unspoken leaders of the group. They organised a small fund to pay for the footballs and kept, as best they could, the boisterousness in check.
Then one evening, Quini turned up.
QUINI had always been an impulsive man. He was a dreamer, full of ideas, some of which were good, some of which were not. When he first told his family of his plans to make a football team out of African immigrants, nobody paid him much attention. Irene Gonzalez, Macar's daughter and Quini's niece, thought it was just another of her uncle's mad schemes, provoked more by the sadness of his sister's death than any real desire to help. His wife, too, saw the goodness of his intentions but thought he was unrealistic.
But Quini was serious. He really wanted to help. He had recently retired from his work and had a lot of free time to dedicate to the project. He only needed some guidance and someone to take care of the players while he organized the rest.
He called his friend Alejandro Benitez and asked him to come down to the Pradera and watch the men play. Alejandro had played semi-professionally for Jerez, where he was known for his physical presence on the field and his calmness and honesty off it. Solidly built and softly spoken, he could be serious, but he was always fair. Quini thought he would be the perfect person to take charge of the players. Luckily Alejandro was enthusiastic about the idea, too, and took little convincing to become part of the setup.
Now all that the team needed was a name. This wasn't a hard decision for Quini. It had all begun with his sister and the dog. The spaniel carried his sister's memory, and so, too, would the team. He called them Alma de África.
The project began to take shape in the following months. Irene joined as the club's secretary, organizing the team's online presence and searching for sponsors. As soon as she saw that her uncle was serious about the idea, she wanted to be involved. For her, perhaps more so than Quini even, it was important to keep her mother alive in any way she could.
Meanwhile, Quini and Alejandro spent their time seeking advice from local NGOs and lawyers regarding the players' documentation and the project's possible structure. During these meetings, they discovered that the club was the first amateur team comprised of immigrants in the world. There had been a similar case found in Calabria, Italy some years previously, but Bosco, the team in question, had been made up of players who had participated in organized leagues in their home countries. Alma de Africa was a group of street footballers, none of whom had played in an official competition.
Alejandro and Quini also decided that the club should become more than just a football team, that it should become an organization helping immigrants integrate into Spanish society. So, although they had initially envisioned the team as a club for African settlers, it was agreed that at least 20 percent of the squad should be Spanish-born. This would, the lawyers insisted, prevent the team from becoming ghettoized, and would give the Africans an immediate and permanent social link to their new country.
But to make this more realizable, Quini knew the team needed a full-time coach. Although Alejandro had done a good job thus far, his temperament and skills were better suited to an official position within the organization's directive. He would become the president while Quini worked to make sure the team played in the regional league for the 2015/16 season. Together they would find a coach.
ON August 11, 2015, Alma de África signed Pepe Correa as manager. Correa was Alejandro's good friend, and like Benitez, with whom he had played at Jerez, Correa had been a talented striker. Indeed, as he often lamented, had it not been for an knee injury, he would have played in La Liga with Atlético Madrid.
Short, with a toothy grin and the distinctive slippery lisp of Andalusian Spanish, Correa was a savvy man and well-respected throughout Jerez. Alejandro had no doubt that he was the right man for the job. Indeed, he took the role without seeing the team play. He was a man who always wanted to learn something new, and he liked a challenge. Nevertheless, despite all his years of experience and all the countries he had seen in his football-related travels, he was not ready for what he saw in that first training session.
He heard French, Pidgin English, English, broken Spanish, Yoruba, Moroccan Arabic, and local dialects he couldn't even begin to name. The Moroccans played fast, skilful football, but they were fragile and prone to diving. The West Africans were far more physical, a combination of powerful punts and crunching tackles. And then there were the drilled, if technically lacking, Spanish players. Three distinct styles within one team and 15 nationalities on one pitch.
Moreover, Africa was a big continent and a heavily connotative word. The Moroccans didn't like being referred to as Africans; they were Arabs. And in some cases, African dialects being so numerous, two countrymen couldn't understand one another but for their broken Spanish. As Correa quickly realized, this wasn't just about integration into European society, but integration with one another.
The team played with passion but they had little technique. They chased after the ball as if the ball itself held the key to their future, which in a sense it did. They didn't realize that staying in their designated position was sometimes better. Many of them had learned their games in the streets, and despite being fast-footed, they were disoriented by the expanse of the grass pitch.
Apart from the obvious language barriers, Correa was also concerned about communicating on an emotional level. He recognized that his life bore no resemblance to theirs and that his problems paled in comparison. How could he connect with them?
He soon understood, however, that the players didn't want his sympathy. They didn't need to be reminded of their problems, nor did they require some sort of emotional solidarity. Sympathy was useless and not at all practical. At least for now, the players needed practicality, not psychology. Indeed, how close was sympathy to pity and pity to condescension? Correa would not condescend them with his ignorance of their strife. It was football they wanted, it was football that helped them disconnect from their realities, and it was football that Correa knew best.
BY the beginning of September, 2015 the team had strips, a website, a board of directors, and permission to play in the league. The players had also played in some friendly fixtures, first under Alejandro and then Correa. Unfortunately, however, the team lost all those friendlies. On each occasion, the opposition had been of a higher level, and the team, although improving, was still disorganized. But word of the project was spreading.
The press had gotten hold of the story, and the team had appeared on the front page of the local paper. The players, who once had to suffer the constant indifference of Jerez's commuters, were now causing minor traffic jams at the intersections where they worked. People wanted to know who these players were. Indeed, within the space of a year, they had transformed themselves from anonymous immigrants to the protagonists of a city-wide story.
But the players approached all this with caution. Their lives had been too complicated, too laden with disappointment, to let themselves be swept up in the project's Hollywood-esque rise. They hoped that Alma de Africa would work. They certainly believed in it. But, as Kameni Raphael would often say, they were not children, and if it all failed, they would move on and find something else.
Indeed, for all the great things the project had achieved, it hadn't solved the men's most basic problems. None of them had full-time jobs and some were still living on the street. In addition to these major difficulties there were other administrative concerns. The town hall had not provided the team with a training facility. The squad still practised at the Pradera, where there were no floodlights, no full sized pitches, and badly maintained surfaces. Moreover, three of the players were prohibited from playing in the league until their paperwork was in order. This, unfortunately, was taking some time. And finally, there was the question of money. The initial donation from Quini's sister helped start the project, but it was not enough to sustain it.
All Quini and Alejandro could do, however, was concentrate on preparing the players for the upcoming season; the rest they would deal with when they could. Playing in an organized league had, after all, been their main promise, and it was one they would fulfill.
ON the morning of October 18, 2015, the day of the team's first competitive match, Christian awoke tired. He hadn't slept. He had been too nervous. Although an injury early in the season meant that he could no longer play, Correa had chosen him to be the team's assistant coach; an honor that meant just as much as being in the starting eleven. In a few hours, he would walk out at the head of the first football team of its kind.
He remembered when Quini had first approached him, promising him the world. He remembered when Alejandro had turned up to oversee their practice. He remembered when both Quini and Alejandro had taken him to a posh hotel to discuss the project in detail. He remembered that he had always remained slightly skeptical.
But things just kept progressing, promises kept being fulfilled, and here he was, with his Alma de Africa polo shirt and his best blazer, sitting, listening to Pepe Correa give the team talk. He continued to think about this as the team chanted, as he crossed himself before leaving the changing room, and as the referee's whistle blew to mark the beginning of the game.
The game started in a shambles of swipes, scrambles, collisions, and the usual array of expletives and gesticulations. The players were frantic, dashing after the ball and breaking their lines with puerile enthusiasm. They were daunted by the pitch. It was AstroTurf, and the smooth glide of the ball was unlike the erratic bounce and bump of their roughed-up training surface. It was also full sized, at least 50 percent bigger than the Pradera, and its dimensions were affecting their setup. Luckily, their opponents Español de Vejer were sluggish. Their players ran as if they were wading through thick syrup and dribbled ineptly. They were clumsy and could not exploit the technical defects of the Africans, much to the apoplectic disgust of their foul-mouthed coach.
The first thirty minutes was a draw between clumsy passion and lethargy.
Then Abdel Bouilli, probably Alma de Africa's best player, took the ball. With his Sideshow Bob haircut swept back by his own momentum, he sped passed the lead-footed midfield, evaded the bulldozing challenges of the defense, and skirted round the goalkeeper's lackluster lunges, slotting the ball into the left-hand corner of the net. He would later say it was a goal worthy of Messi. A goal that, at the very least, proved he was good enough to be a professional.
The rest of the team flooded around him, and around them, the crowd whistled and whooped and yelled. The players' celebration was bashful and tentative. Nobody could quite believe that they were winning. Nobody had known what to expect.
Whatever had been anticipated, however, didn't end up mattering. After the first goal, the team's play completely changed. They remembered their formation, each of their individual positions. They forgot the thumping wallops upfield and recalled their short quick passes. They remembered to be calm and composed.
Soon they were cutting holes in the opposition's apathetic midfield, and by the beginning of the second half, an onslaught had begun. The second goal came early, headed past the goalkeeper's despairing dive. Some 15 minutes later a penalty was blasted into the bottom right-hand corner, and in the last ten minutes of the game, a solid strike burst through the goalkeeper's hands and into the net.
When the final whistle was blown, Alma de Africa had won its first game 4-0.
The ground erupted into a series of hugs and jostles. This time, the celebration was bold and deliberate. The players beamed at each other with sweaty smiles, congratulated one another with ungainly slaps on the back and gasped praise through heavy breaths. And, led by Quini, they hoisted their coach onto their shoulders and threw him into the air. They began to chant:
"Alma, Alma, Alma. Alma de África."
Correa later described it as the best sporting achievement of his life and Kameni said that it was his best day since he jumped the border fence into Spain.
Of course, reality is relentless and unforgiving, and after the match, after the celebrations were finished, things went back to normal. Kameni had to be up the next morning to clean cars; Christian had to be at his traffic light to sell tissues, and Abdel had to return to the highway bridge where he lived.
Quini, for his part, went to the local laundromat. There, he dumped the players' dirty kits inside the washing machine and thought about the project. He thought about how he might try to secure jobs for the players and help get them off the streets. He thought about the grants he would apply for, the sponsors he would try to attract, and how he might go about approaching a benefactor. Then, he thought about his sister, the dog, the first day in the Pradera, and the team's first win.
The victory had filled him with joy, but he couldn't help but feel scared. He had given these players hope, and the responsibility of maintaining such hope daunted him. He would do what he could, but he was constantly aware that it may not be enough. He had started something, but he had no idea when or where it would finish; if it finished at all.
He was comforted, however, by the slop and gurgle of the washing machine, watching the colors of the team's strip going round and round. It reminded him that there was always something to do, something small but vital to the project's ongoing success.
The cycle finished, and Quini bundled the kits into a plastic bag. He had to see someone about getting the players new boots.