Football stadiums around the world stand eerily empty at a time when fans should be witnessing the drama of promotion, relegation and league and cup wins. From grass-roots to elite football, fans are eagerly awaiting a safe return of the “beautiful game”. It is the same for Rohingya refugees.

In some of the world’s major leagues, clubs have tentatively resumed training as league bodies decide the fate of the season. In Germany the Bundesliga is back under way while nine football stadiums have been approved to host matches once Portugal’s top league restarts. 

However, one football pitch that garners little media attention is perhaps one of the most valuable in the world in terms of providing escapism and expression for players. It is a pitch on top of a hill that overlooks the world’s largest refugee camp.

One million refugees

Kutupalong Camp on the south-eastern tip of Bangladesh is home to more than a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. This crowded ‘temporary’ city sprawls across five square miles. It’s choked with fragile shelters housing refugees and the few possessions they brought with them when they fled persecution and violence in Myanmar.

Living conditions at the camp are poor. Refugees have no access to education or employment and, living as stateless people, the Rohingya have no rights.

For many Rohingya refugees, playing football on the sandy pitch is a precious means of escape. Spectators also find respite from everything they have suffered and the challenges of living in the most populous refugee camp in the world. In short, this pitch with goals but no nets and a periphery of arid shrubs gives everyone a chance to switch off and enjoy the world’s most loved sport.

Before covid-19, plans were put in place for a football tournament at Kutupalong Camp in which 16 teams would participate. It would be the first formally organised event of its kind.

Crowdfunding campaign

Paul Watson, football journalist and author of Up Pohnpei: Leading The Ultimate Football Underdogs To Glory, set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the project.

He is working with UK-based documentary-maker Shafiur Rahman, who had been making films about the plight of the Rohingya for years. The project involved collaboration with the Rohingya Football Association, which is based at Kutupalong Camp.

Watson says: “We were raising money to get the pitches playable and provide all necessary equipment and kit. Football is huge for the Rohingya and is the main sport they enjoy. Sometimes thousands attend games there.

“The hope was the tournament could be a launchpad for future events, whether coaching, education or children’s football days. We hoped to build on this tournament and make it an annual festival of football.”

In a promotional video for the crowdfunding campaign, one young player described how much football means to people living in the camp.

He said: “Life in the camp is difficult – but football makes a difference. It is good for our health. Most importantly, it brings us together. Sometimes we play with Bangladeshi teams to develop good social relations.”

Twist of fate

In a cruel twist of fate, the event was cancelled only a week before it was due to take place. With coronavirus beginning to get serious, the organisers thought it safest to cancel.

Watson says: “At the time there were no cases in Bangladesh but the government was preparing to limit gatherings. We felt it would be irresponsible to go ahead with it.”

At present, there have been three coronavirus cases reported at the camp, believed to be local workers rather than Rohingya.

Watson says: “There’s understandably great fear among the Rohingya population as the outbreak could devastate an already fragile community. For now, the tournament is on hold until things are safe again. All we can do is pray the virus doesn’t sweep through the camp.”

The crowdfunding campaign for the tournament has already passed its £3,000 goal but donations can still be made to make it an even bigger success. Through the uniting power of football, we can help change the lives of Rohingya refugees for the better.

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