United Glasgow: fighting friction with football

[box]Martin Lennon[/box]

Set among the boarded up shops and post-industrial rubble of the former shipbuilding centre of the world, I found United Glasgow FC’s training ground with a wee bit of difficulty. Enough street lights are out in this part of Govan that even a lifelong Glaswegian can find it hard to keep his bearings. But if my temporary sense of displacement was a little frightening, it is hard to imagine the sense of isolation hundreds of asylum seekers experience every year as they arrive in Glasgow. On a floodlit primary school fives pitch I find a group seeking to make that experience a bit better.

United Glasgow FC grew out of casual games of 5-a-side that were put on by Unity in the Community, a Govan based charity working with asylum seekers. As the charity’s work grew and developed, so too did the football. Its various incarnations began entering one day tournaments put on by anti-discrimination and anti-racism groups throughout Glasgow. Last summer the now-manager Alan White, along with others, took the leap to form a formal team and joined the Scottish Unity League.

Their first season has not quite brought them rampant success on the pitch. United Glasgow currently sit bottom of the table with an impressive zero wins and their last match found them on the receiving end of a 7-4 thumping. But White sees the team’s successes off the pitch as being much more important: “Me and the other guys who are running the team at the moment are more concerned by that fact that there are guys in the team who 6 months ago might never have met an asylum seeker, who now know stuff about it … who now consider people from Zambia and Somalia friends of theirs. It’s all about people meeting each other and breaking down barriers.

‘It’s good for asylum seekers as well because there is this discourse around migration and asylum in the UK that is incredibly negative, and it’s good for them to see ordinary day-to-day Glaswegian people who don’t think differently of them because they’re migrants: who don’t think differently of them because of where they come from.”

This sense of breaking down barriers is immediately palpable as I walk out onto the pitch. Though I came as a spectator, no sooner am I on the grass than spare boots and tracksuit bottoms are thrust into my hand. As I quickly change on the pitch I overhear jokes and small talk in multiple languages. Players greet each other in their mother tongues one second before immediately breaking into English as other players join the conversation. By the time the warm ups have started any sense of being the new guy has already disappeared.

Leading the training is Max, the club captain. Originally born in Cameroon he moved to Glasgow when he was three to be with his mother. Confident and assertive, Max motivates the rest of the team and sets up the training drills. A football fanatic who plays for multiple sides, I ask max why he got involved with the United Glasgow: “One of my pals was an asylum seeker, and he started telling me what Alan was doing for asylum seekers: trying to help them through sport … and I just thought ‘That’s great. I’d be so glad to join you.’”

Having experienced racism on the pitch himself Max was drawn to be involved with the team, as he sees it as part of an effort to combat racism. Although the Scottish football media are never short of commentary on sectarian issues, racism in the Scottish game is seldom if ever discussed. However the experiences Mark Walters, Jason Scotland and various others point to an ongoing problem and at the amateur level where the game is less regulated, there seems to be a culture where racism is acceptable.

Alan White: “Junior football has always been the preserve of the kind of white working class male. Even university teams can find it quite difficult to play there. I don’t think that everyone who plays junior football is an out-and-out racist. I think that people pick on a physical characteristic to wind up an opposition player. And someone from Cameroon or Nigeria playing juniors and they’re the only person on the park that’s not white, invariably it’s gonna be their skin colour that gets picked up on. It can become a very distressing thing for the player if it happens over and over again”

United’s players aren’t ones to shy away from winding up opponents (or fellow teammates for that matter). What distinguishes the club from others in lower reaches of the Glasgow footballing system is the lack of posturing or ‘preserve’. The bonds of the team are formed by stressing a shared love of the game, rather than the tribal rivalries.

Glasgow is a city not yet famed for using football to bring people together. The Dear Green Place is renowned in the footballing world for a pronounced, passioned and petty rivalry. It is a city where conversations about football are all too often divide friends rather than bring together strangers. The Scottish Unity League, and in particular United Glasgow FC, might just be beginning to change that history.


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