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Playing Home From Home — Stories from the Field

“After everything I have gone through, football gives me the chance to feel normal again. To be me again.”

When I think of football, I think of Cristiano Ronaldo, my favourite player in the world. I watch videos of him trying to learn. Just like me, he’s a striker. He also lives in Turin. And he represents his country, just like me. The only difference is that he does it at the World Cup and I do it at the Balon Mundial Cup. But I believe we both play because we have such love for the game.

My name is Ansu, I’m twenty years old and am from Guinea-Bissau. Back home, I always played football. I often took part in tournaments, which we players organised ourselves. There was no official league or championship that we played in, but that didn’t matter to us. The main thing was that we could enjoy ourselves for a few hours before going back to work. In Guinea-Bissau earning enough money to feed your family is a constant battle. Life is tough and most families struggle just to survive.

I came to Italy in 2016. Like a lot of people making the journey, I came on a boat which ran into trouble and ended up sinking. We would have drowned had it not been for a Guardia Costiera boat that arrived just in time and rescued us. Not only did the Italian people save me, they’ve given me food, taught me to read and write and given me a job. I will be forever grateful for all they have done for me and the kindness they have shown. I’m especially grateful to my social worker — I call her “Mamma”. She was the one to take to me to school for the first time and give me a chance. I think that is what I appreciate more than anything — being given the chance for a better life.

When I first arrived, I didn’t have much to do because I had to wait for my papers to come before I could start working. It was a very frustrating process and I really wanted to be doing something. Then, one day, I was walking through Parco del Valentino with “Mamma” and we saw some people playing football. She asked me if I played and told her how much I love football. Soon after that, she introduced me to Simone from Balon Mundial.

Simone ran a team called Cuori d’Aquila — the eagle’s heart. He was happy for me to join the team and I started training with them every Monday and Thursday. It was a team of refugees from all over the world. Sometimes the players would bring their friends and we’d have over 40 players. Our team later took part in the Balon Mundial Cup. The atmosphere there was so warm and friendly with music and food from all over the world. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. But I noticed that although a lot of different countries were represented, my home country, Guinea-Bissau, wasn’t one of them. So, I went to Via Bologna where they were holding the qualifying competition for the next cup and asked if I could start the Guinea-Bissau team. As long I had the players to make a team, I was told, we could play in the tournament. I went home and talked to my friends and they were all really excited. I organised a place and a time for us to train and in 2017 the Guinea-Bissau team was born.

We practised twice a week and even got our own jerseys which we bought with some of the money we saved up from our jobs. The Guinea-Bissau flag is printed on the front and our names are on the back — just like the real international team jerseys.

It’s not easy to manage the team and make sure everyone comes to training but, to me, it is all worth it. Every time I step out onto the pitch or travel to training, I think of my home country. I think about my family back home and my brothers, too. I worry about them and I’d really like to get a job which can help them and improve my own life. I hope I can find some work soon but, until then, I have football and my Guinea-Bissau team.

Winning the Balon Mundial Cup would be fantastic, but there are many good teams, so it won’t be easy. I also think the cup is not just about winning. One of the best things about it is meeting new people and making friends — also with players from other teams. After playing a match, a lot of guys come up to me and ask me my name and we exchange phone numbers. On the pitch we’re opponents but afterwards we’re all good friends.

More than anything, Balon Mundial is about bringing people together and recognising our similarities rather than our differences. When people think of Guinea-Bissau or other African countries, they often think about negative stereotypes. But when you meet me or my teammates at the Balon Mundial Cup, hopefully you’ll see who we really are and what we are like. That’s what football really does. It breaks down prejudices and builds bridges between all of us, no matter where we were born or the colour of our skin. For me personally, I know that no matter what kind of day I’ve had or how frustrated I’m feeling, playing football makes everything better. I feel free when I’m on the pitch, I put all my worries to the back of my mind and just play. After everything I have gone through in my life, football gives me the chance to feel normal again. To be me again.

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