Immigrants to Spain find refuge in football
After surviving perilous journey to Europe, players compete in Andalucía team
Christian Loris, deputy coach of the Alma de África football team, in the park in Jerez where they train. Photograph: Guy Hedgecoe
It’s 9pm in Jerez and, as the late-summer heat finally fades, the southern city’s Chapín football stadium, where the local professional team plays, casts a long shadow.
In the green park next door, a group of amateur players are just finishing a pre-season training session. There’s plenty of banter and joking, much of it in Spanish with an African accent, while the coach, former professional Pepe Correa, barks reminders about the next practice.
This is Alma de África, or Soul of Africa, a team founded in 2015 and made up almost entirely of migrants. Some reached Spain by boat, others came smuggled in vehicles or climbed security fences to get here. Many of them harboured ambitions of becoming stars in the Spanish soccer league and while they are unlikely to do that, this club is helping them fulfil a more modest dream, that of forging a life in Spain.
“This is like a family,” says Issa Abdou, a Cameroonian who plays in midfield. “It gives you an objective in your head, something to focus on.”
Abdou hasn’t seen his own family since leaving Cameroon at the age of 11, embarking on a long journey northwards. When he reached Morocco, he spent more than two years camping out in the mountains in the north of the country. He, like many other Sub-Saharan Africans, repeatedly tried to reach the Spanish city of Melilla, which is perched on the North African coast, by evading the Moroccan police and climbing the six-metre-high fence surrounding it and even swimming round the border post.
“Life there is terrible, but you have to be strong and keep going,” he says. “You’re living up there until you get in, by force or however you can – you do whatever you can to get in.”
In 2007, at the age of 17, Abdou finally managed to scale the fence. Getting to Melilla meant reaching Europe, where he hoped to emulate his compatriot and football hero, Samuel Eto’o, by playing in Spain’s elite la liga. But life as an undocumented migrant in southern Spain presented its own challenges.
Andalucía, which is receiving the majority of migrant arrivals to Spain – nearly 8,000 in the first seven months of this year – is one of Spain’s poorest regions. In 2016, the city of Jerez had the third-highest unemployment rate in the country, at 36 per cent.
“We have a situation [in Jerez] where a lot of people are out of work,” says Alejandro Benítez, a local 54-year-old who is president of the club. “So imagine how that problem is magnified for the migrants who arrive here.”
A friend of Benítez’s, Quini Rodríguez, came up with the idea of Alma de África, after seeing groups of Africans playing informal games in the park at the weekend. His niece, Irene González (33), now the club secretary, saw it as an ideal way of paying tribute to her recently deceased mother, Rodríguez’s sister.
After starting in the regional fourth division in 2015, the team has been promoted each of the last two seasons.
The players do not receive payment. But Alma de África supports them off the pitch. Benítez and González find work, training and housing for those who need it, particularly the undocumented migrants. But the project also offers them something else.
“What this gives them is unity,” says González. “Alma de África is their family. Above all it gives them back the dignity that they may have lost when they came here and felt insecure about things.”
Despite its name, the team is not exclusively African. As well as Cameroonians, Senegalese, Nigerians and Moroccans, it has a Bolivian, two Colombians and even four Spaniards.
Language of football
“The language they have to speak is football, that is the language everybody has to understand,” says Christian Loris, the team’s deputy coach, who reached the Andalucía coast in a small boat 10 years ago. He now works in a local supermarket and has managed to gain residency papers.
“It doesn’t matter [where you are from] or your religion, what matters is football. I have some people who are new and they don’t even understand Spanish but they can understand the language of football.”
One of the Spaniards on the team is goalkeeper José Abraham Arenas, who says that before joining Alma de África he had little idea what African migrants went through to reach his country. When Loris told him of his own voyage from Nigeria and the risks he took to get to Spain, Arenas cried.
“You realise the determination they have,” he says. “You turn on the TV and see that 150 or 200 migrants have arrived in boats here and then when you realize what they had to go through to get from there to here – and you compare that with what we have at our fingertips – you have to appreciate what you have.”
But Jerez’s migrants still have to deal with prejudice. During one game, the quietly spoken Arenas charged off the pitch to berate a supporter of the rival team who was shouting racist insults at his teammates.
Arenas hopes such episodes are now behind the team. Meanwhile, as the new season gets under way, Alma de África’s players are aiming to secure promotion yet again and, more importantly, to consolidate their place in their adopted country.