When Germany welcomed more than one million refugees during what is now called the ‘European migration crisis’, many consequences ensued – political, economic, and social. One of the better ones could probably be a “football for all” revolution that is being led by Hagar Groetke and Nico Appel in Hamburg with FC Lampedusa.
By Shubham Kaushik
The Fanladen at the Millerntor Stadium is warm and full of voices. Instructions in german about how to cut potatoes mix with other tongues as a group of young men gather around a foosball table in the centre of the room. In the small kitchenette, napkins are being stamped with FCK DBLN, which is a statement against the Dublin III EU regulation for refugees. Packs of freshly printed stickers saying “Here to Play” are piled into a box. Soon, it starts smelling of roasted paprika and spices. It is a big cooking session by the coaches and players of Football Club Lampedusa to thank fans for their support. It feels like home. But for many of the young men in the room, this feeling hasn’t come easy.
“Here to Play, Here to Stay” might, at first, come across as an innocent enough tagline for a football club, but the simple phrase stands for far more complex and important issues. Complex, yet also, quite literal. The players of Football Club Lampedusa, who are all refugees in Hamburg, want to be able to stay here, and play here
In many respects, FC Lampedusa is like any other football club – they have regular trainings, coaches, uniforms, they play in tournaments, and banter with each other like any other close-knit team would. Despite all this, they are, in fact, one of a kind. Take their origins, for example – formed nearly five years ago, at the peak of what is called Europe’s “refugee crisis” when some young men sheltered at the St. Pauli church at that time wanted to play in an indoor football tournament and realized that they would need some support. They found this support in the form of an all-women coaching crew at the helm of which, from the very beginning, were Hagar Groetke and Nico Appel.
Hagar, who is from Hamburg, and Nico, who moved here more than thirty years ago, know each other from when they played football for the women’s team of FC St. Pauli. A team, mind you, that they also had to fight to establish because back in the 1980s, FC St. Pauli had no football teams for women. Hagar, who was a part of the left-wing anti-gentrification Hafenstraße squatting movement in Hamburg, recalls the struggle and a clear feeling of “What about us? Excuse me?” when the women couldn’t join the men from the movement to play football at FC St. Pauli every Sunday. So the women started by asking, getting refused, and then finding ways around the system which ultimately got the club to listen to them and make space for them to play. It didn’t come easy – many broken locks, and the thrust of the left-wing feminist movement overtaking St. Pauli in the 1980s were involved. But then taking up space for women in traditionally male-dominated fields never does. They emerged victorious, though, and now the women’s department at the FC St. Pauli is around 250-300 players strong.
In the 1980s, they were fighting to take up space for themselves and their self-empowerment as women, and now they are doing something similar with this football club-cum-political project that they take care of between them. Although the coaching crew for FC Lampedusa consists of five people, Nico and Hagar are usually the only constants with the other members rotating as per availability. This means that between the two of them, not only do they show up for weekly trainings despite having day jobs, and travel with the team for tournaments, they also take care of the website, social media, the uniforms, being in touch with interested media, and most other issues that crop up with the club. And with a club like theirs, with players who are young refugees, the problems can sometimes be as hard as helping the players fight deportation and get proper documentation. They did find extra support through their association with FC St. Pauli, which “adopted” them in 2016 after FC Lampedusa lost the make-shift pitch they used to train on.
“We were ‘pitchless’ and we said we have to be adopted by some club. Who could it be? And it was obvious, it had to be where we started, our home, where we came from. We said okay let’s talk to St. Pauli,” recalled Nico, who called this a win-win situation for both sides. St. Pauli got to write “refugees welcome” on their flags and have an official refugee football team, and FC Lampedusa got a pitch to train on, and support with things like equipment and media contact.
The time and effort Hagar and Nico invest in this club, and the passion with which they talk about it makes it evident that while it is not easy, it is something rewarding for them. A project that is as much centred on their political views as it is on their love for football. The strong left-wing politics of FC Lampedusa is something that they are both quite firm on. “If you wanna talk about our team, you have to talk about politics as well,” says Nico quite simply. And how can you not? “People say, “but this is sports don’t talk so much about politics” and then you come to training and see that three players are gone, deported?” It is political.” stresses Hagar.
They have gotten comments over the years about “misusing” the young players for their political targets, but Hagar and Nico are quite clear about the players not needing to share their political views. “We are radical left wing. The boys don’t have to be radical left wing. They don’t have to share their stories with us – we never ask.”
Despite the overtly political tone that surrounds FC Lampedusa, it is also a space of warmth, love, and personal investment. With many of the players arriving in Hamburg in their mid-teens, often without parents or support, Hagar and Nico often fill the role of the guardians. “They are 15 or 16 years when they arrive … and it’s quite nice to see that you can give them some things in their life on the way. And of course we never know how long they’re going to stay. But even if they’re only here for three weeks, it could be a nice three weeks and feeling like a family. Three good weeks,” says Nico.
In the past five years, Hagar and Nico have coached more than 180 young refugees. And they are still getting new players, even though the numbers have gone down a bit in the past few years due to stricter immigration policies. What motivates them, according to Nico, is quite simple. They want change. And of course, this was the perfect place to start doing that. “ … You start there where you feel confident – your hobby, what you like, what your passion is. And our passion is football.”
The author would like to profusely thank He Zhang for his invaluable expertise with all the photographs seen here. Many thanks also to Ronit Borpujari for his help with and enthusiasm for this story.