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Eleven Portraits of Football in Sheffield

Football Unites Racism Divides (or FURD) uses football to combat racism and bring together communities. It’s an inspiring place – a community hub combining a library, gym, and state-of-the-art pitches – full of inspiring people. On our second visit there we met Hafsah, an 18 year old woman who plays at FURD on Tuesday nights. She’s softly spoken but makes her points firmly: “some people says girls shouldn’t play. I disagree. Football is the most important thing in my life”. Hafsah’s dream is to play in Qatar and she’s a Manchester United fan. We talk about the kinds of players she likes, Van Persie, Ronaldo, Robben; flair players. She loves the “turn up and play” nature of FURD, and enjoys meeting new people.

Then we catch 10 minutes with Ruth, who runs the women’s project here. We ask her a question we’ve asked of most of the people we’ve met in the course of this project: “what does football mean for you?” Ruth’s answer is beautifully simple: “it makes me happy. It takes away your stresses and it can bring people together”. We talk about the challenges of organising women’s football. We learn that often the established teams are in leafy suburbs and it’s hard to get kids from across the city involved. For all the talk of football as inclusive and universal, there is clearly much work to do to remove the barriers to participation.

This is a topic that fires up Asim, too. He’s been involved with FURD since it all started. He was a founding member of Sharrow Utd, a team that FURD helped to get off the ground. As a team of Asian players, Asim told us about the racial abuse and intimidation Sharrow faced when they started. They quickly made a mockery of their doubters. Starting in the lowly Sheffield Regional Alliance Sunday League, Division Two for the 2000-1 season, Sharrow were promoted every season until reaching Division 1 of the Meadowhall League where they needed just two bites of the cherry to reach the Premier League in 2010. “After a while we got respect”, he tells us, “we started to open people’s eyes”.

Asim now coaches the Sharrow U10s. He’s giving something back. “FURD was there for us when we were growing up. It got us together and it kept us together.” A couple of the lads have gone to academies in recent years – “the talent is there, it just needs to be nurtured”. FURD and Sharrow Utd have helped to fundamentally shift the culture of football in this city: “in my day, you didn’t get the support of your family, but now, because of the organisation, we are getting the parents on board”.

My final visit to FURD came on a warm Wednesday afternoon in July. Chris, who had introduced me to Asim, Hafsah and Ruth, was keen that we met the ‘Belonging Group’, an initiative for refugee footballers that revolves around twice weekly games at the UMIX centre in Sharrow.

As I arrived I found Chris and joined him to watch the game. We talked a little about the project’s origins. It began in 2012 and Chris tells us that the first job was to get the essentials in: decent boots, kit, toiletries etc… to ensure that there were no barriers to inclusion. “In the early days people turned up, disappeared for a few weeks and then came back. Slowly, a regular group started forming”, Chris tells me.

Today it’s apparently quiet for a ‘Belonging’ game, but that’s not the word I would use. It looks like a six-a-side to me, the game is played at a fast pace, and frankly it’s getting tasty. Suddenly a challenge flies in and everything stops, there’s pushing and shouting and blokes are being calmed down and taken into corners. It’s a familiar scene. Then it’s handshakes all round and the game starts again.

Chris and I talk a little about the ambience of a match like this. The way the game seems to have a gentle rhythm until there’s a sudden shift: a goal, a challenge a contested decision and the shouts and cries all come at once.

As the game reaches its climax I’m struck by its quality. There’s a guy at the back, Mohammed, picking out passes and spraying the ball around with aplomb. Chris tells me he arrived in England to play football, had trials with professional clubs and is now a chef in Sheffield.

There’s another lad that catches my eye. Every touch is precise, he dribbles past players but only when he needs to, and the goal he scores at the end shows effortless class. I’m told he’s on the books at Sheffield United, just up the road, and you can see why.

After the final whistle I go inside with the players as they catch their breath and have some lunch. I get talking to Waheed, originally from Afghanistan he arrived in Sheffield 12 years ago and has been going to ‘Belonging’ since it began. He tells me he thinks it’s amazing that he’s made friends from all over the world: “Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, all over Africa.” He smiles and tells me “you see them in town, and you’re like ‘alright!’” Arhani, who came here from Iran five years ago, joins in the conversation. I hear more about the group – they play three times a week and I’m shown the Whatsapp group they use to organise games.

I talk a little to Arhani and Waheed about the benefits of regular football. “I used to be fat!” Arhani, says, pointing to his non-existent belly, and Waheed proudly declares that he’s lost “20 kilos” since he started here.

And then Arhani says something that really stays with me. “Life can be boring. I work, I study, but here I am happy. I improve my English and my football! Sometimes when I play I take a photo and put it on Facebook; I show my family that I’m not alone in Sheffield.”