Set up by a Syrian refugee in Malta, a new football team is giving refugee and migrant players the chance to play in local leagues.
Syria-Gżira FC is the brainchild of Taleb Zaidan. Taleb is a Syrian refugee who has been in Malta for five years and in that time has managed to set up his own business, NGO and, most recently, an 11-a-side football club. The team was registered in mid-August 2019 and is currently playing its first season, taking part in the local Swan Amateur Football League. At the time of writing, Syria-Gżira FC have already won some matches.
Taleb decided to start the club after meeting some fellow Syrians and other enthusiasts, who were all interested in playing football formally but did not have many opportunities to do so. Many migrants and refugees struggling to integrate in Malta have difficulties finding teams they can train with while they are just starting out. So for many of the players, this team is an opportunity to become engaged in society while practising their hobby.
As the club manager, Taleb’s main aim is to support the social inclusion of refugees and migrants in Maltese society: “If a player is good, no one cares where he is from. He will make connections while playing. And those that are really good will have the chance to move on to more established clubs.”
Taleb has also faced some obstacles in setting up this team. Getting everything organised and having everyone show up to training on time seemed to be the biggest challenges initially, while language barriers also presented an obvious hurdle. But Taleb is unfazed.
“Good players just understand each other. It’s almost like football can be its own language.” — Taleb Zaidan
This attitude is beyond significant, considering how many different nationalities are represented in Syria-Gżira FC. At the time of writing, this young and growing team already included players from Malta, Syria, Palestine, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria and Ghana.
Muhammed Nuradeen, from Ghana, and Ali Mohammed, from Nigeria, have both been in Malta less than a year and are very glad for the opportunity to play for this team. When asked what they liked most about it, Ali Mohammed said, “It’s all about the chance to meet people, exercise, have fun and keep fit. It’s our hobby and we like to meet people through it.”
Omar Rababah, a local, first division football player, serves as a volunteer coach and management assistant with the team. He faced a number of challenges in bringing it together, including training players with little to no experience and trying to help with social and transport issues. Still, he considers his overall experience with Syria-Gżira so far to have been very positive, particularly watching players from all corners of the world coming together to collaborate, with the common aim of playing good football.
Omar says he would have expected to be met with more challenges in coaching such a diverse team:
“Of course all our players come from very different backgrounds. But throw a ball between them and watch all their differences melt away.”
Coach Omar hopes that teams like Syria-Gżira FC and all the migrants playing with other squads in local leagues will help challenge negative stereotypes. In terms of his goals for the season, he is interested in getting points but not necessarily set on taking the league. It is the team’s first year after all, and so he is more focused on playing well and making sure that everyone involved feels like part of the team, “the most important aim being that everyone has fun, and that being on the team brings a sense of satisfaction to all involved”.
In setting up the football team, Taleb also had the support of Peter Busuttil of the Malta Football Association.
A version of this article also appears in Building Communities, a UNHCR Malta magazine published in January 2020.