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Etnoliga: sunshine in troubled times

By Krzysztof Jarymowicz, Project manager Etnoliga, Fundacja dla Wolnoci

As a partner of the European FIRE project, the Fundacja dla Wolności (Foundation for Freedom) runs many innovative projects in Poland for inclusion through sport. This is the case of Etnoliga, an intercultural football programme launched in 2010 in Warsaw.

“It’s great to be back here!” I heard this again and again on that cold and sunny mid-March day. We were lucky enough to schedule at least one of our Etnoliga tournaments in a small window of opportunity between winter and spring restrictions. Locked in our homes, we had been struggling with bad condition, overweight, sadness. It was high time to have an outdoor football reunion! Some sixty men and women showed up, a mix of Poles, Mexicans, Moroccans, Senegalese, Tanzanians… Eventually we had a full day of fair games and joy.

Football brings sunshine in these troubled times, no doubt about that. The more we miss it, the more we realise how important its role is. It is not only about running and sweating; it’s all about bringing people together and achieving team goals. If you had seen these grown-ups running after the ball like children, you’d have understood in the blink of an eye why sport-related programmes can be so successful. Here, the social change is visible on smiling faces.

I dare not compare lockdown to the experience of forced migration, but the confusion, isolation and stress we are all undergoing in Covid times, give us some insight. Perhaps I can grasp better what Jean, a Central African asylum seeker, meant when he said after his first session: “For the first time in weeks I was not thinking for a moment about my past and my future…”

At Etnoliga, we have made efforts to promote diversity through football and empower underprivileged groups – not only refugees, but also women or LGBTIQ – for 15 years. Last November, the UEFA executive committee recognized our work with its annual European Grassroots Award. Even people who are not interested in sports, and even some of our critics, were truly impressed. Despite being aware of many shortcomings, I know for sure now that it all makes sense.

It is true that, unfortunately, the award does not involve a financial reward, but it will hopefully help find donors and preserve the project’s sustainability anyway. During the online ceremony I had a chance to explain our vision in which football plays a role of an important link between many segments of a polarized society. We only needed to rethink it and put it to use in different ways. The key is to shift your thinking and view football as a means, not an end.

In Poland, these two areas – sport and social change – are still not connected with each other. Clubs’ social responsibility comes down to saving water or reducing plastic, and one-off actions for sick children. Nothing wrong with that, but I haven’t heard of a single Polish top-tier club that has a refugee programme. I did hear though about one that refused to showcase its black fans on the website as it “might spoil the club’s image”.

Take another example: in many grant applications you will gain extra points for achievements in sport, even at the junior level, but there will be no questions about gender balance or equal opportunities at your activities. “Not a single penny of the Polish taxpayer should be invested in those Negros”, a club manager told me once.

This kind of statement is outrageous, but it is just a symptom of a large number of phobias that impregnate the football industry against any meaningful

change. Am I startled to hear that it’s “not time yet” for a woman to coach the women’s national team? No, I am not – though it was not too early for South Sudan, the youngest country in the world, that recently hired Shilene Booysen as a head coach. I was rather surprised in February when Katarzyna Kiedrzynek, captain of the Polish team, said at a press conference: “Every person  has the right to be what he or she wants to be and we are not allowed to judge him or her by the sexuality, religion or skin colour”.

It was for the first time that we heard a similar statement from an active professional football player.

You need some resilience to keep talking about diversity when the state has a major problem with the rule of law. Women’s and LGBTIQ rights are not priorities of the Polish authorities, nor are they for the majority of the conservative layers of society. But the political conflict and polarization seem to catalyse a re-positioning. Individuals intuitively seek the presence of others that share similar beliefs, but they also extend their receptiveness to new ideas and activities as well. In the end this movement only drives more people towards Etnoliga – both participants and volunteers. The lack of a serious offer from clubs and communities that could capitalize on this trend is a mystery to me. The far right still treats football as its preserve and the game is perceived by many as a potential problem rather than an opportunity. That is why it is so important to promote good practices and showcase grassroots initiatives.

In this context, I am glad to be introduced into projects such as FIRE led by the Sport and Citizenship. Not only do I have the opportunity to work with experts from countries where football for social purposes is much more developed, but also to pass these ideas on in my homeland. A broader perspective allows you to see wider and set more realistic goals. It is also only thanks to the EU funds that we can regularly involve refugees in our activities and run with more or less stability a variety of activities in the centres for asylum seekers.

The challenge that remains is to get relevant stakeholders interested and motivated to introduce changes. We are a tiny organisation, after all, with limited capacities and we have to focus on the local community. What is needed, more than ever in these troubled times, is not one but many little Etnoligas.

Sport et citoyenneté