‘Soccer makes you forget your past for a while’
In a world full of war, a soccer has a special power. Relativization, hope, fun, friendships, happiness, dreams. It all flows from that small, round thing. Because whether you are from Ukraine, Syria, Iraq or Iran, everyone speaks the language of the ball.
That was evident on Friday afternoon at the KNVB Campus in Zeist, where some two hundred refugees were playing a tournament, aiming for a place in the Dutch selection for the official UEFA European Refugee Championship, where the Orange will debut in Frankfurt at the end of June.
Under the beaming sun only happy faces. Everyone is enjoying, fanatical and dreaming of being selected. At the same time, they are all boys with a story. Often left their homes in a hurry because it was no longer safe there.
At the front of the field, loud cheers and non-Dutch shouts are heard. A team full of athletic guys, all dressed in different outfits, overpowers the opponent. It turns out to be a group of young men from Ukraine.
“Great that you Dutch are organizing this for us,” says Aleksandr from Kyiv, the best soccer player of the bunch. He fled because of the war and now plays together with compatriots he got to know this day. “Nice easy communication,” he jokes.
In between jokes, the cheerful boy tells us that only recently a Russian missile exploded a kilometer from his parents’ house. “Nobody knows what could happen there tomorrow,” he says.
Aleksandr feels very welcome in the Netherlands. “I work in a restaurant here and everyone always asks how I and my family are doing. The Dutch are happy to help us and I am very grateful for that.”
That he impresses on the soccer field is not surprising. He says he has been playing soccer since he was five years old and played in the youth of record champion Dinamo Kyiv before the war. “Football is my life. It is much more than a game. It gives me hope.”
Familiar face as coach
From a distance, former professional soccer player René van Rijswijk looks on with a satisfied expression. The former striker of RKC, Cambuur and NEC will soon be the coach of the refugee team going to the European Championship on behalf of the Netherlands.
The team that wins the tournament gets to go. Supplemented by players Van Rijswijk picks. “There’s some real talent here, it’s going to be quite a job,” he concludes from his overlooking seat.
Van Rijswjk is socially involved, also coaching the Dutch homeless team, with whom he played the World Cup of street soccer. “These people have been through a lot of shit, but now they want to move forward again,” he said.
“Just the feeling of not being able to go back to your own home seems very difficult. Let alone all the nasty things that caused that,” said the man who was known for his ponytail as a soccer player but has since lost his wild hair.
Watch the portrait about soccer player René van Rijswijk, by Frank Heinen, below:
End signal: René van Rijswijk
It was up to Van Rijswijk to judge the players not only on their ball skills, but also on their team spirit and togetherness. He ended up delivering eleven players, a mix of eight refugees and three national amateur players.
Afghan refugee helps refugees
According to UEFA requirements, the team must have at least two women. With ambassador Farkhunda Muhtaj, one of those is already in. Muhtaj plays at Fortuna Sittard and is captain of the Afghan women’s team.
A refugee herself, she grew up in Canada but never lost her connection to Afghanistan. When the Taliban seized power there again in August 2021 and it became unsafe for women in particular, Muhtaj helped evacuate national youth players.
After a month, she managed to get her compatriots to Portugal, where Muhtaj herself came to welcome them in Lisbon. “Since then, I have been helping them to continue their lives and soccer careers there,” she says from the sidelines in Zeist.
“Now that they are safe, the Afghan women can do what they have always wanted to do, which is succeed in life. We want to show that refugees have so much to offer.”
Her gaze moves once more across the field full of refugees having fun. “Soccer is a universal language. It allows you to forget your past and dream about your future. You can see that in all the smiles here.”