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Worlds apart but united by a love of the beautiful game

The formation of a football team in Belfast made up of players from overseas has not only helped people come together, but raise awareness of racism and sectarianism too, says Ivan Little

The clue is in the title. For the football club who call themselves World United have a team which consists of a cosmopolitan hotchpotch of foreign players from every corner of the planet whose games are all away matches, staged in a new home thousands of miles away from their birthplaces.

But what makes WUFC different from the scores of English teams who similarly have dozens of "imported" players in their starting XIs every weekend is that this United Nations of a club don't ply their trade in the big leagues, with wages bills topping millions of pounds for the superstars they recruit from every country under the sun.

No, despite their global branding, World United's horizons are somewhat more limited - to the anything but glamorous and glittering footballing scene in Northern Ireland.

They're based in Belfast, where the homelands of the players on their team-sheets have, down the years, read like the itinerary of a round-the-world tour, fielding footballers from no fewer than 20 different nations.

And this year the inter-cultural World United will celebrate more than a decade together since their formation in 2003 when their aim was to do what it says on their tin - to bring refugees, asylum seekers and people from black and minority ethnic communities together on the football field in Northern Ireland.

Such has been the massive influx of people into the province that World United have been able to give more than 100 players from a diverse range of backgrounds the chance to play the game most of them know and love from their own countries.

The establishment of a World United team was a major goal for the Irish Football Association's community relations department under their Football for All Programme in 2003.

The IFA wanted to give immigrants the chance to meet other people from similar backgrounds, to get a foothold in Northern Ireland and to tackle racism in the process.

Former Northern Ireland internationals Mal Donaghy and Ian Stewart came on board to deliver master-class coaching sessions. And in recent months the IFA have also signed up women to the World United cause.

Reginald Vellem, a computer software engineer from Zimbabwe, has been part of World United from the kick-off and still turns out in defence for the team, though he's had far too much experience of attacks in the past. From racists that is.

Graffiti has been painted on his east Belfast home and eggs have been hurled at his car, which has also had its tyres slashed, though local people and politicians did come to the support of his family and the situation has calmed down.

Several other team members have also been targeted and the club are striving to eradicate racism and sectarianism.

South African Kingsley Burrows, who is the manager of north Belfast club Brantwood, is a passionate believer in everything that World United stand for.

He joined them five years ago after contributing to a Facebook debate over racism in English football.

"I was invited down to take part in a match and I liked what I found there," says 43-year-old Kingsley, who played semi-professional football in South Africa before coming to live in Northern Ireland, where his wife is originally from.

"World United gave me an avenue to play a bit of football and it was a great way to meet people. I didn't expect to come to Northern Ireland and meet people from all over the world.

"And the spin-offs have been excellent too.

We've been able to assist guys where we can to settle into the community here, to find them work and give them a sense of belonging," adds Kingsley, who has helped WUFC deliver an anti-racism and anti-sectarian outreach programme which they hope to expand with even more groundbreaking initiatives and workshops.

Reginald, who is the club chairman, says: "A priority for us is to engage with organisations and community groups out there to help increase awareness of the scourge of racism and sectarianism.

"When many of us go out to talk about the problems, we are speaking from personal experience. Some people here tend to put us into little boxes, thinking we are different from everyone else, but when we interact with them they come to realise that we are just like any other guys."

Kingsley Burrows was surprised to find that racism was so rampant in Northern Ireland.

He says: "I really didn't think I would be coming here and seeing acts of racism. South Africa has come a hell of a long way and to see other countries struggling with racism is quite shocking."

The workshops which Kingsley and Reginald present for community groups are now seen as crucial elements of the club's development.

But 12 years ago things were very different for World United.

"It started off very informally," says Reginald. "The Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM) brought together a lot of us who had just arrived here. The idea was to let us get to know each other and to find out more about Northern Ireland.

"We had kickabouts in Ormeau Park and then it was decided we should organise a more formal set-up with a management committee to run the club.

"The IFA provided us with kit and they also arranged friendly games for us. And they're still the kind of games we play every six or seven weeks, even now. Our opposition comes from teams like Deaf United and sides from the PSNI and community groups. One of our next games is against a group of solicitors."

In June, World United played a friendly against what some cynics dubbed Stormont Disunited - a team made up of MLAs, who were beaten 3-0.

After receiving initial backing from the IFA, World United are now an independent club who have to finance themselves, which isn't easy in the current economic climate of gloom.

Finding players hasn't always been simple either and in the past several local people have had to make up the numbers.

Which is how coach Adrian Murphy got involved six years ago after two of his brothers lined out for World United. Adrian was supposed to be in the side for just one game but he's still there, having been enlisted as manager last year.

Adrian, who was assistant manager for FC Ballynure, says winning isn't everything for World United.

"It's all about getting people together for a bit of fun and for interaction with each other and with the wider community," he says. "But we have also had some amazing players coming through our ranks."

The recruitment process is mainly carried out by word of mouth, with players spreading the message to fellow countrymen and friends and families.

Organisations like NICEM and the Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS) also let newcomers to the province know about World United, who at present can call on around 20 players from eight different countries - Zimbabwe, Portugal, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, Hungary, Zambia, and Ivory Coast. But even after a decade, WUFC have no aspirations to enter a team into any leagues around Northern Ireland, though a number of their players do turn out for other sides in competitive games.

World United's women footballers are still finding their feet too, so to speak, though they have received financial backing from a number of sources, including the Department for Culture, Art and Leisure and Comic Relief.

The IFA's community relations manager Claire Adams has been one of the main driving forces behind getting the women's team off the ground and her enthusiasm is infectious, but not just for the footballing potential of World United.

She says: "It really is exciting, even though it's probably been more difficult for some women to get involved because there were things which were holding them back, like difficulties surrounding child care. And also in some cultures it would be frowned upon for girls to play games like football outdoors."

Claire hasn't just used the same tactics as the men for finding women who want to play football with World United.

"We've gone to the universities and appealed to their foreign exchange students coming from Europe and further afield to join us. And that has been a successful way of boosting numbers, plus it has also brought down the average age of our players because we are getting younger girls showing an interest."

Women from the likes of Spain, Poland, Lithuania, China and Africa are in the current World United set-up but local girls have also been encouraged to enlist with the club.

Claire says: "They're playing a stakeholder role. They're the ones who can really reach out to the girls who've come here. They know where they live and they can welcome them and they can help by taking on a mentoring role."

As with the World United men, the language barrier for the women players can be a hindrance but also a help.

"Some of the girls don't speak any English at all," says Claire. "But football is a great way to get around that to enhance their communication skills."

Claire has also secured funding for an education programme for the women footballers.

"The girls can get accredited qualifications that way. We've already done a mental health course and at the minute we are looking to organise one for sports photography."

A course for would-be referees is also in the pipeline for the World United girls. Up to 14 women turn up at a south Belfast leisure centre for weekly training sessions, which were doubled from one to two during the summer.

"They were playing friendly matches and entering into tournaments so it's easy to see how their confidence has grown, and very quickly, too," she says.

They've already taken on junior teams from Cliftonville and matches against Carnmoney and Chimney Corner ladies clubs are in the offing. "It's a learning curve for the local teams as well," says Claire. "They haven't played any sides before where the players may have absolutely no English at all. So everyone's a winner."

As for the future, Claire says the IFA are happy to see World United's women take things slowly.

"The football is obviously very important. But it's equally vital for us to create opportunities for people who wouldn't ordinarily have them - to gain an education and qualifications, but also to make friends and become integrated in the community and break down barriers. Obviously for the IFA it's all about developing teams and players but this is also about developing people with the Football for All ethos."

IFA officials are also exploring the possibility of setting up a World United women's team in the north west of the province.

"We have a lot of research to do to see if there is the need for something like that up there," adds Claire, who revealed that the World United ladies beat a team of women MLAs 3-2 in a game earlier this year, completing a double over the Assembly members.

Shocking statistics of an ongoing problem...

While Northern Ireland has been no stranger to religious sectarianism in its troubled past, it is the ugly spectre of racism which has more recently become a feature in the social fabric of the province.

From graffiti daubed on houses occupied by ethnic minorities to physical assaults on foreign visitors in the street, it is a trend totally at odds with the more positive story of how Northern Ireland has become a popular location for those seeking work here or to build a new life.

However, figures revealed last year have shown that those who come here are not welcomed by everyone, with an average of two racist attacks taking place every day in Northern Ireland, a 43% jump in such figures from 156 race crimes in the first three months of 2014 compared to 103 for the same period in 2013. The vast majority of race hate crimes (70%) took place in Belfast, mainly in the north of the city.

Just this week, Ghanaian pensioner Adu Kyeremateng said he intended to leave his west Belfast home after it was paint-bombed in the early hours of last Sunday morning.

In July, meanwhile, homes and cars were damaged and graffiti daubed on walls in east Belfast in a spate of hate crimes against Romanians and Slovakians.

And in June last year, two Pakistani men were assaulted at a house in north Belfast after a window at the property was smashed. Alliance Party MLA Anna Lo also made headlines last year when she spoke movingly of the hostility she had suffered during her decades of living in Northern Ireland and said continual racist abuse had influenced her decision not to seek re-election to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

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