The Matt Slater Column: A sporting legacy for the refugee crisis

A trip to Helsinki prompts Press Association’s chief sports reporter to reflect on the contribution offered to sport by refugees across Europe and beyond.

The Matt Slater Column: A sporting legacy for the refugee crisis

There are days in this job when you feel genuinely blessed. These are usually the days involving remarkable athletes, incredible feats and iconic venues.

Then there are days like last month’s 41st Uefa Congress, which was held in a windowless room in a compound near a train station in Helsinki.

As soccer politics events go, it was par for the course and better than last year’s soul-sapping 66th Fifa Congress in Mexico City. And the Messukeskus Expo and Convention Centre does a fine if unfussy job if you a need a space with a roof, chairs, a stage, somewhere to boil a kettle and a PA system.

But after five hours of watching sport’s equivalent of sausages being made – an election for half of the seats on the Uefa executive committee and other gigs with handsome per diems – I was in need of some fresh blessings.

Thankfully, actual soccer was my salvation in the shape of the first match of the new season of Finland’s premier division, the Veikkausliiga.

It would be an exaggeration to say I stepped out of the Uefa bubble, blinking into the daylight and followed the throng to the Telia 5G-areena, but there were enough fans not to have to ask for directions.

The game was between HJK, Helsinki’s top club and the most successful in Finland, and VPS, a team from Vaasa on the country’s west coast. There had not been much between these two in 2016 but I suspect 2017 will revert to type as I witnessed a 5-0 stroll for the hosts that flattered the visitors.

If that suggests a lack of tension on opening day, you are right. But there was plenty else to enjoy.

First, HJK’s modern stadium is a delight. From high up in the main stand, I had a view of the adjacent 1952 Olympic Stadium, the match in front of me and the three games taking place on the community pitches next door.

Second, ‘Klubi’s’ more vocal fans kept up an amusing racket throughout from behind one goal, while families watched whilst snacking at tables on the concourse below me. The slightly ‘non-league’ vibe was also evident in the club shop, housed in a storage room next to the main office. I bought a scarf and a bag of HJK coffee beans.

And finally, there was HJK’s play – or spells of it, before they got bored.

You have already experienced the extent of my Finnish in this piece but there was a self-explanatory season preview in a local paper that morning which suggested HJK were Finland’s big spenders with a budget of less than UK£3.5m.

They certainly make that go a long way as their first goal was scored by a current Colombian under-20 international called Alfredo Morelos and their second and fifth goals by former Japanese under-20 Atomu Tanaka.

Also in the team were players from Gambia, Ghana and Nigeria – quite a statement of multi-culturalism from a team founded in 1907 by Finnish-speaking students, desperate to break free from Russian control and Swedish cultural influence.

It cannot be long before we see the first Syrians come through European academies – they will be small wins in an otherwise heavy defeat for humanity.

The most eye-catching display came from Moshtagh Yaghoubi, a midfielder who ran the game without ever moving faster than a jog, but then ‘Mosa’ has been on the run for most of his life.

Born in Kabul, Yaghoubi’s family fled the Afghan capital after his father was shot on their doorstep. He then spent nearly seven years in Iran, before his family sought asylum in Finland. He was only 11.

Like so many youngsters in a new place, Yaghoubi found his feet in sport, progressing through Finnish youth soccer until reaching the top flight at 17.

Since then he has played club soccer in the top divisions of Latvia, Russia and Kazakhstan, before signing for HJK at end of last year. In the meantime, he became a Finnish citizen in 2013 and made his full debut for the national side in March. He is 22.

I have no idea if Yaghoubi’s career will go much further but just consider how far he has come from losing his father in such appalling circumstances in a country still tearing itself apart, haemorrhaging talent like Mosa every day.

Last month, Amnesty International marked the contribution refugees make to the game in their new homes, and vice versa, with a campaign called ‘Football Welcomes’.

Over a weekend, clubs across England put on coaching sessions, held fundraisers and dished out free tickets to help refugee communities feel more at home and more like carefree youngsters again.

80 years before, in April 1937, the first child refugees arrived in the UK from the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, in particular the Luftwaffe’s bombing of Guernica.

Of those nearly 4,000 children, six would go on to play professional soccer in England, one would also play for Barcelona and Spain, and another would score Real Madrid’s first goal at the Bernabeu.

Sadly, the list of refugee footballers has grown much longer in the intervening years and it cannot be long before we start to see the first Syrians come through European academies – they will be small wins in an otherwise heavy defeat for humanity.

Being able to play again, however, is perhaps the best sign that things will get better. Soccer is at its best when it remembers simple things like that.

Press Association is an official SportsPro media partner. Follow Matt on Twitter @mjshrimper.

This column originally appeared in Issue 94 of SportsPro magazine. Subscribe here.