Glamour provides refuge from grim reality

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England’s Premiership is awash with foreign stars. Yet underneath the glamorous surface of the world’s richest league, there is another side to English football’s foreign legion.

A survey conducted two seasons ago by Kick It Out, the anti-racist campaign, found that a quarter of Premier League clubs had a refugee in their squads. Sixty-four per cent of professional clubs in England and Wales responded, revealing that a total of 15 per cent had players who were refugees.

On Monday, two such asylum-seekers turned footballers will hope to feature in the Premiership game between Watford and
Portsmouth.

Alhassan Bangura has marked his debut season in the Premiership with tough-tackling displays in Watford’s midfield. The 19-year-old’s journey to football success has been remarkable.

Bangura fled Sierra Leone four years ago after his father died. His father had been a member of the Poro secret society, a group in which men practice particular social, political and spiritual roles. Under the rules of the group, Bangura would have been forced to succeed his father but this was an obligation he did not want.

Bangura went to Guinea where he was befriended by a Frenchman who took him to France and then the UK in the hope of luring him into male prostitution. Bangura eventually escaped and sought asylum in England.

Incredibly, a Watford scout spotted him playing football in a local park, something Bangura did to keep fit during his difficult early days in England. He quickly rose up the ranks of the Watford academy to play an important role in the team’s promotion last season. Now the transformation is complete as Bangura lines up against the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United.

The Portsmouth striker Lomana Tresor LuaLua, famous for his acrobatic celebrations, is another one of English football’s refugees.

LuaLua arrived in England at the age of nine after he fled the troubled Democratic Republic of Congo, then known as Zaire, with his father. His early memories of life in the UK revolve round a detention centre.

“Life was very different then,” says LuaLua. “I couldn’t speak English but in detention they made it really easy for the kids. You had your computers and your games. In those days, it was a safe place to be.”

LuaLua has not forgotten his roots. As well as setting up a foundation for children in Congo and acting as
Portsmouth’s social inclusion ambassador, the 26-year-old is a patron of Haslar Visitors Group, a charity that offers support to asylum seekers held in the Haslar detention centre in Hampshire.

“When I was in detention, I remember some people used to get sent back and that wasn’t the nicest thing,” he says. “There are people who kill themselves in there because they are not being told what is going to happen to them. Football is just a job for me. I’m not too hooked on it. I believe that, if you can help another person, try.”

Michael Woolley, co-ordinator of the Haslar Visitors Group, appreciates the importance of having LuaLua as a figurehead, believing he can help change perceptions of asylum seekers.

“I have seen LuaLua go into Haslar and the men have responded very positively to him and he has responded warmly to them,” says Woolley. “I think it’s great people like LuaLua draw attention to the cause of asylum seekers. They can influence people who go to football, especially the young.”

LuaLua feels there is a large pool of talent among asylum seekers but their potential is being stifled by bureaucracy. “I have seen some great talents but the annoying thing is there are no papers allowing them to work. It hurts me to see that I can’t do anything for them.”

Despite those restrictions, LuaLua has a message for asylum-seekers dreaming of following in his footsteps: “Never let anyone put you down or say it’s too late. I made it late. I went to different clubs but I never gave up. Nothing is too late.”

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