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21st Jul 2019

How Football Beyond Borders are inspiring south London’s youth to change their lives

Reuben Pinder

Shahad has always loved playing football, but when she entered year 9, her parents told her she had to give it up and prioritise her exams. Less than two years later, she is the cover star of a 160-page magazine produced and created by herself and her classmates as a celebration of women who have ‘changed the game’. 

These girls are now on course to emulate their heroines’ success thanks to the work of Football Beyond Borders, a charity who use football to “create a more equal and inclusive society in which young people from low income backgrounds have the opportunity to develop the skills, attitude and character to succeed in education, work and public life.”

“My dad was not a big fan of me playing football, seeing as I’m growing up in a Muslim household. So, I stopped for a bit,” Shahad tells me before one of the after school sessions FBB put on at Elmgreen School in Tulse Hill, South London.

“I used to do netball for a bit, but when FBB came along I told them about it and explained how it’s not just football, it’s also work. Then they were like ‘you know what, we’ll see how it goes’. So far they’re pretty accepting of it. They like how it works, how I’m not just playing football, I’m earning the chance to play.”

FBB piloted three girls’ programmes this academic year after female students at Elmgreen noted the benefits that their male counterparts were seeing from their after school sessions, and fought to be afforded the same opportunity. 

“Me and my friends saw a boys’ group going on around the end of year 9. We went up to the head of the boys group, Bruk, and asked ‘can we have a girls’ group? It’s not fair,” Shahad recalls.

“So we all went up to them and on the first day of year 10, Ceylon was with the boys and we had a chat with her to make a girls’ programme.”

Ceylon Andi Hickman is Head of Female Participation for FBB and has been leading the Women Who Changed the Game project. We’ve only been in the school for 30 seconds before she is greeted with a barrage hugs from the FBB participants. They love her. 

The session begins with a motivational pep talk from Ceylon, who can sense frustration among the participants. Five weeks have passed since the start of their Women Who Changed the Game projects but they are yet to see the fruits of their labour. Ceylon issues a rallying cry to the girls, calling on them to create something that will make people care about women’s football beyond the World Cup.

They are making profiles of inspirational women in London for the magazine which will soon be launched in an immersive exhibition at Nike’s 1948 space in Shoreditch with the aim of writing unsung women into history.

Tiana, a 15-year-old student at Elmgreen, is particularly focussed on Evelyn Scott, an Indigenous Australian activist who campaigned for the constitutional alteration, ensuring that aboriginal natives were recognised in determinations of population and chaired the National Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in the 1990s.

“If it wasn’t for FBB, I wouldn’t know about Evelyn Scott,” Tiana says. 

“I wouldn’t have heard of her name anywhere, in the media or in school. You can find information anywhere but it’s surprising that I’d only learned about her now due to FBB. 

“In our school curriculum, we don’t really get these different people that we get to study and all these different case studies. It broadens our horizons.”

Upstairs, Bruk Abdu is leading the boys’ session where they are tackling the issue of masculinity. I introduce myself to the group and earn their trust by telling them that as a fellow South Londonder, I support Crystal Palace.

Bruk shows the boys a short film and asks them to think about what messages it is trying to convey. I’m impressed by the maturity of some of their answers, something clearly aided by their close relationship with ‘Uncle Bruk’.

The themes of emotional repression and competitiveness are discussed, with several of the boys acknowledging that the expectation for them to exert a tough, serious and overtly masculine persona is not healthy.

“Smiling doesn’t make you weak,” one says.

It is the relationships between the group leaders and the FBB participants that are the foundation of the charity’s work. Everything they do is based on attachment theory, Ceylon explains.

“Young people need a sense of belonging. Our organisation is built on attachment theory, we’re there to help build secure attachments for young people who don’t have them.

“We see the world through relationships and the way we’re going to change a young person’s life is by having a consistent and trusting, relatable adult in their life, whom they can build relationships with. 

“That’s why it’s a two-year model. It’s not a quick fix of 12 weeks where you come in and you’re coached or you do an educational project and you leave. It’s about sustained, long-term intervention.”

Every participant I speak to testifies to this. 

“Having young people we can relate to, we can bust joke with, someone you can come to when you’re upset – even someone you can come to for wisdom that isn’t your teacher – having your own personal relationship definitely benefits us,” Tiana says.

Cerny, a 15-year-old boy who has just started training with AFC Wimbledon’s academy, sings Bruk’s praises and details how FBB have helped him come out of his shell and improve his behaviour.

“Ceylon and Bruk aren’t just strict, we see them as role models and it’s not like our teachers where we just listen to them,” Cerny says.

“When they talk, we want to hear what they have to say because they’ve been through most of the same things that we’ve been through; they can understand where we come from. 

“They will listen to us. We call Bruk ‘Uncle Bruk’. It’s become a thing where it’s like… If we can’t talk to our parents about something, they’re the ones to go to. They’ve really become big role models for us.”

Cerny admits he was extremely timid before he began FBB sessions, which he had to sneak into at first.

“After I started hearing the kind of opportunities they offer the students and the development that some of the students had because of FBB, that’s when everyone started being like ‘yeah, I need to get in’. 

“Personally I was always going to the classroom sessions, even if I had to sneak in one time. I was constantly contacting Bruk, telling my teachers to recommend me for FBB, and it’s literally become a place where you have to be in it. 

“In terms of my confidence, I was this shy boy who didn’t mind not having his opinion heard. But now I’m so confident I’m on the verge of cockiness, because of FBB. Also because of school as well, they’ve helped me stay on track, balancing my football and my school. I’m achieving my targets, my behaviour’s gotten way better. Everyone here, their behaviour has got better, they’re hitting their targets. 

“The girls also fought a lot to make a girls’ programme, that’s how much of an impact FBB has had on our school.”

Severe cuts to education and youth services over the past decade have led to a funding crisis, Ceylon claims, creating the need for charities like FBB to step in and give disadvantaged kids more opportunities to learn, both socially and emotionally, and showcase their talents.

“Our schools are experiencing a real funding crisis. They can’t provide the tailored social and emotional support that they would want to,” she says. 

“I do believe that all teachers go into teaching to be able to support a young person through this journey but your curriculum is constantly changing. You’re basically teaching them to memorise and you’ve got 30-35 kids in a classroom, you can’t give that bespoke support every young person needs. 

“We are fortunate enough to have great people. We have incredible staff members from the communities – from the same schools even – who are now the role models for the young people. They’re able to go in and build relationships because they’ve got that time and that freedom because they’re not seen as a teacher or a parent. They can be there and operate in a different way.

“The government aren’t doing it, schools can’t really do it so it relies on the third sector. We have youth services provision.”

A week later and the girls’ group are launching their magazine. 200 people are crammed into the immersive exhibition. The positive energy in the room is almost tangible.

Tiana takes the stage.

“You definitely know about Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Lionel Messi,” she says. “But what about Evelyn Scott, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Vick Hope? These are just some of the revolutionary women you’ll learn about today, and there’s a whole magazine we’ve made telling their stories. Welcome to The Women Who Changed the Game.”

At each part of the exhibition, people are invited to actively partake in an activity, from creating a word cloud to taking polaroid photographs, before they arrive at the magazine itself. Shahad is the cover star, chosen by her peers due to her powerful story, and writes about Eni Aluko in the magazine. Shahad hails Aluko’s strength in the face of harsh racism throughout her career as a source of inspiration for young black girls.

Seeing their finished product in the flesh, something they created, about people who inspire them, was “incredible”, Ceylon says.

“We had 40 girls there and each and every one of them nailed each part. It was all hosted by Tiana and then they had some various testimonies of the girls, how they’re going to change the game, why they’re pissed off with society. It was very powerful. I think everyone in the room was like ‘wow, these girls have got something to say’.

“I honestly don’t think they knew they were capable of producing something this beautiful and powerful and now they have, it’s like ‘ok, we can do this’. And that will totally change the way they see themselves.”