‘New Irish’ busy making their sporting mark
A growing cohort of talented young athletes, born abroad, now coming to the fore
Gina Akpe-Moses, Blackrock AC, Co Louth, after winning the European U20 100m Women title at the European Athletics U20-Championships in Grosseto, Italy. Photograph: Sportsfile
Shairoze Akram clearly remembers the day Mayo footballer Andy Moran visited his primary school in Ballaghaderreen.
He liked playing soccer as a boy and often joined his friends on the local GAA pitch to kick a ball around after school. However, it was Moran’s influence and encouragement that really pushed him into Gaelic football.
“He wanted us all to get involved. No matter where you were from he got everyone out.”
Akram, who played on the Mayo team that won last year’s U-21 All-Ireland title, grew up in a family that had very little interest in football. However, watching his son represent his county on the national stage has turned Akram’s dad into an avid GAA fan.
“At first he didn’t really know the rules but he picked it up as we went along. He didn’t realise how big it was until we won the all-Ireland. I think he gets now why people are so passionate about it. Now he’ll be on the sidelines crying out to me and climbing onto the pitch after to be in the thick of the action.”
Akram was four years old when his family moved from Haroonabad in eastern Pakistan to the small town of Ballaghaderreen. Sixteen years on, the 20-year-old says it’s an honour to play football in a Mayo jersey.
“It was so special winning last year. Words can’t really describe the feeling of your family and friends watching you win.”
Akram now plays with Dublin City University but has his sights set on playing senior level football for Mayo. He’s also acted as spokesperson for the GAA encouraging younger players with foreign backgrounds to get involved with the sport.
“They’ve asked me to talk to communities but it’s hard to convince them to try a sport that they have no familiarity with.”
Despite the challenge of signing up new recruits, Akram underlines the vital role sport plays in promoting integration.
“There’s no boundaries in sport. Everyone is going for the one goal on the team. There’s no different religion or you’re from a different place when you’re playing. That’s very important.”
Akram is just one of a growing cohort of talented young Irish athletes, who were born abroad or who have parents from abroad, bringing a new vitality to our nation’s sporting achievements.
Former Republic of Ireland football manager Brian Kerr says the growing diversity across the Irish population will only mean positive things for our sporting accomplishments. However, he adds that racism in sport is an ongoing issue, particularly in the world of soccer.
“I would say that ignorant, uneducated people are inclined, in the heat of tense matches and competition, to come out with abusive and racist remarks. This needs to be dealt with harshly by the authorities.”
Kerr says the children of families in direct provision should be given additional support to get involved in sports.
“With soccer you need boots, with hurling it’s hurls. You need transport to get to training. In many cases young athletes don’t have the money and this should be remembered by all clubs and associations. They could be losing out on potential stars because families don’t have the funds.”
The Government has a responsibility to increase funding for sports clubs across the State to ensure the inclusion of all children in training and matches, says Kerr. He adds that sports clubs and organisations must make an extra effort to reach out to new arrivals in the community.
Tony Watene, inclusion officer for the GAA, agrees that Irish clubs must put resources into opening their doors to new families.
“The GAA and inclusion are inextricably linked,” says Watene. “Given our position at the heart of Irish society, we have an obligation to promote opportunities and provide avenues and meaningful outcomes for all to be involved in Gaelic Games. By all, we mean people from all backgrounds and of all abilities.”
Lido Lotefa, whose family moved to Ireland from the Democratic Republic of Congo when he was six years old, has encountered barriers in sport as refugee. A talented footballer, Lotefa and his friends set up a team at the Mosney direct provision centre and were invited to take part in the Drogheda league. He went on to join St Kevin’s FC where he was spotted by a scout from Coventry and invited to train with the team in the UK.
Unfortunately Lotefa was unable to travel alone as a refugee minor and had to turn down the offer. He is now eagerly awaiting his Irish citizenship in the hopes that he will get called to trial with another UK club.
“I feel I don’t get looked at because I lack that passport. I’m not cocky but everyone tells me I stand out in games and I’m playing at the highest level. But it’s always the other guys who get looked at.”
Lotefa, who now plays with Bohemians FC, believes coaches are more likely to pick Irish-born athletes to represent Ireland at international level rather than recent arrivals.
“I would really like to play for Ireland,” he says. Not everyone gets the chance to represent their country.”
Jessica Ziu is already living the dream of playing for her country. The 15-year-old plays U-17 soccer for Ireland and this week travelled to Manchester City to train with the club.
Ziu, whose father moved to Ireland from Albania 19 years ago, remembers pleading with her mother to let her join her brothers’ football club.
“I was about 5½ and was always crying and saying I wanted to go with them. My ma would say it’s a boys’ club, you can’t go. Eventually she spoke to coach and convinced him to let me in.”
One of nine children, Ziu uses soccer as a way to calm her mind and clear her head. “I like playing with friends and if I’m ever having a bad day it’s there for me.”
She would like to see more support for women’s football and feels frustrated by the lack of investment in the sport.
“There’s still a big difference between men’s and women’s football. Women don’t get paid enough and men get all the gear. There’s still a real discrimination towards girls.”
I feel like I owe Ireland something and want to make people there feel proud
Another young woman raising the banner for Irish women’s achievements in sport is Gina Akpe-Moses who last month made headlines after winning gold in the 100m European Under-20 championships in Italy.
Akpe-Moses, who was hailed on Twitter following the win as one of the “new-Irish” bringing sporting glory to our small nation, says a more diverse Ireland is “the start of something great”.
“I don’t think of myself as new. I’m Irish but part of a whole new generation bringing something different to the table.”
Akpe-Moses is now focusing on building her speed so that she can bring more medals home in the future.
“I don’t want to be ‘she won the Europeans now where is she’? I don’t want to be a one-hit wonder. I want to make sure my name is still out there.
“I was born in Nigeria but I grew up in Ireland,” says the 18-year-old whose family moved to Birmingham three years ago. “I feel like I owe Ireland something and want to make people there feel proud. I still call it my home.”
Armstrong Okoflex, who moved to the UK a few years ago to play with Arsenal, also feels a strong connection to his Irish home. Okoflex has played under-15 international soccer for both Ireland and England.
“Ireland is where I’m from but England is financially better and the grounds are amazing. I enjoy playing with both but obviously I’m Irish so I feel the connection with them.”
The son of Nigerian parents who moved to Ireland more than two decades ago, Okoflex says diversity is a vital component of building a successful soccer team. “Nigerian players born in Dublin should be given more opportunities to play with Ireland if they’re good enough. Diversity is very important in football. The best nations have a mixture, not just white or black players. This is what Ireland can improve on.”
Shairoze Akram (20) from Ballaghadereen in Co Roscommon played with the Mayo U-21 team that won the All-Ireland title in 2016. He moved to Ireland from Pakistan with his family when he was four and began playing football aged 11. He now plays for DCU and hopes to progress to senior level inter-county football with the Mayo team.
He says: “It’s an honour for me to put on the Mayo jersey. I’d say there are hundreds of lads that would bite their hand off for the same opportunity. I’d say to young people just get out there and try it. I wasn’t any good at the start but the more you try, the better you get.”
Lido Lotefa (17) moved to Ireland from the Democratic Republic of Congo when he was six with his mother and siblings. He set up a football team with his friends in the Mosney direct provision centre which competed in the Drogheda football league. He joined Balscaden FC in Balbriggan before joining Bohemians FC. He was spotted by a scout from Coventry after moving to St Kevin’s FC in Whitehall and invited to train in the UK for a week. He was unable to travel as an underage refugee and had to refuse the offer. He now plays with Bohemians FC.
He says: “I know where I wanna go with football rather than hanging around the streets. I’m good at school but I’d rather play football. It’s more exciting and physical. I’d rather do that any day.”
Gina Akpe-Moses (18) won gold in the 100m under-20 European championships in July 2017. She began running with St Gerard’s club in Dundalk before moving on to Blackrock AC. She trained with Athletics Ireland sprints coach John Shields and three years ago her family moved to Birmingham. She still trains with Blackrock AC when she’s in Ireland and in the UK she runs with Birchfield Harriers. She made her international debut for Ireland in 2015 and last year won silver at the inaugural European Youths.
She says: “I’m very hard on myself when it comes to my achievements. It’s sunk in that I won but I feel like other people see a bigger picture than me. I find it hard to be really excited about it. I feel like I need to achieve more things before I officially make it.”
Jessica Ziu (15) from Finglas in Dublin plays under-17 for Ireland and is a member of Shelbourne Football Club. She began playing soccer aged five as the only girl at Rivermount Boys football club. She has represented Ireland in matches across Europe and dreams of playing in the Champion’s League final with Manchester City WFC. She would also like to represent Ireland in the UEFA women’s euro championship.
She says: “I think when people come from different countries they bring more talent to the team. They can be faster and their fitness levels are very good.”
Armstrong Okoflex (15) grew up in Dublin and began playing soccer with Tolka Rovers FC when he was six. He moved on to St Kevin’s FC where he was spotted by a scout who invited him to trials with Tottenham. He also played trials with West Ham before joining Arsenal. He has under-15 international games for both the Irish and English teams. His family moved to the UK four years ago.
He says: “I like to express myself through football and do a lot of tricks. Football is not like school, it’s a happy place for me. It’s where I can just be myself and gives me confidence.”