Sponsors needed to keep refugee footballers on a roll
OSIRE, Namibia, June 30 (UNHCR) - They fled from all over Africa and found their feet in Namibia's Osire refugee camp, kicking up a storm in the local soccer scene. But now they need sponsors to give them a leg-up towards their ultimate goal - a spot in the Namibia Premier League.
Located in an isolated farm area in central Namibia, Osire camp seems an unlikely place for soccer mania. The only kicking the refugees used to do was with their heels, biding their time in this sleepy camp.
But since the Osire United Football Team was started in 2001, the camp's 13,528 refugees have rallied round it, cheering it through an amazing winning streak that included a third-place ranking in the Regional Second Division in 2002/2003.
The team is currently dominating the Far North First Division, coming up tops in the first round of the league. It is now aiming to win the four remaining games in the second round to advance to the Namibia Premier League, where it will compete with the country's top teams.
The man who started it all is Alfonso Ndolwesi, an Angolan refugee who fled to Namibia three years ago. A former player and an experienced coach, he could not live without soccer and immediately started a football team at Osire. Refugees from Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Sierra Leone embraced the sport and training that broke the monotony of their lives.
"If I was not training for soccer, I would be frustrated as there is nothing to do in the camp," says striker Claudio Elias, 22. "Participating in soccer has made me well-known in and outside the camp. I've become a role model for young people, and the sport has kept me away from alcohol, smoking and bad company."
Captain and fellow striker Julius Ade Koroma, 20, agrees: "Thanks to soccer, people don't see me as a refugee from Sierra Leone, they treat me as a part of the family. The sport has also exposed me to people outside the camp."
Osire United consists of two teams with 30 players each. The senior team (aged 18-25) and the junior team (aged 15-17) train five days a week, often twice a day.
"The team has done a lot for the self-esteem and the social climate in the camp," says Eslon Manwandi of Africare, UNHCR's implementing partner in Osire camp. "They also won the appreciation of the Namibian public."
The refugees glow with pride over Osire United's success, while the local residents have learnt to perceive refugees not as passive victims but as people who have something to offer Namibia.
But while the price of pride is immeasurable, the team's winning streak has raised an important question - who will foot the bill?
To begin with, the hardworking young players need more than the monthly food ration of 12 kg of maize meal, 1.8 kg of sugar beans, 1.5 kg of soy beans and some sugar, vegetable blend and salt. They need a bigger and better diet to perform, says Manwandi.
They also need better equipment. Their two-year-old jerseys are frayed and falling apart, their soccer shoes are worn out, and only five balls are left from the intensive training. All these factors affect the players' performance.
Then there is the issue of venue. So far, the camp's modest football field has been adequate for the team and the cheering crowds. But if they win a place in the Premier League, they will have to host home games for visiting teams. As a result, the field will have to be upgraded to certain security standards to accommodate not only Osire's spectators, but also their competitors' supporters.
Transportation and accommodation are also a problem. As long as the team is playing only in the region, it is not too difficult to organise buses to bring the players to their games. But if they start playing in the Premier League, who will pay for their travels across the vast country?
In humanitarian terms, football shoes and fields may not seem vital for survival, but the success of Osire United means a lot to the camp's refugees.
The team needs $13,000 to $14,000 - a minor sum in the world of football, but an unreachable fortune for Osire United. "If they win, they will not be able to carry on. It will devastate them," says Manwandi.
So Ndolwesi will keep coaching his boys, and the people from Osire will continue to cheer their team. But secretly they feel that winning or losing does not make a difference. Unless funds and sponsorship are forthcoming, Osire's refugees seem doomed to lose whatever foothold they have gained in exile.