Clubs, players and celebrity fans take part in Amnesty's 'Football Welcomes' weekend

A participant in Notts County's Football in the Community refugee programme
A participant in Notts County's Football in the Community refugee programme © EFL/PA
  • More than half of Premier League football clubs - including Arsenal, Everton, Crystal Palace, Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United and Leicester City - taking part in Amnesty’s Football Welcomes initiative this weekend (21-22 April) to celebrate the contribution refugees make to football
  • They will be joined by clubs from the FA Women’s Super League, English Football League and Scottish Premiership, as well as non-league and grassroots teams across the country
  • Number of participating clubs - inviting refugees to a game or organising a stadium tour, player visit, match or tournament for refugees and asylum seekers - has doubled since campaign began last year
  • Footballers Mario Vrančić, Anita Asante and Steven Pienaar join celebrity football fans Keira Knightley, Dame Judi Dench, Kaiser Chiefs, Stephen Fry, Patrick Stewart, Ken Loach, Jordan Stephens and Juliet Stevenson showing their support (see full quotes below)

Sixty football clubs, including 12 from the English Premier League, as well as players and celebrity fans are backing Amnesty International’s second Football Welcomes initiative this weekend to celebrate the contribution refugees make to the beautiful game.

Football Welcomes, a weekend of activities which kicks off on Saturday 21 April, is also supported by the English Football League, FA Women’s Super League, and non-league and grassroots teams across the country.

It took place for the first time last April, on the 80th anniversary of the arrival in the UK of a group of child refugees from the Spanish Civil War - evacuated to the UK after the bombing of Guernica on 26 April 1937 - who went on to become some of the first refugees to play professional football in the UK.

Naomi Westland, Amnesty UK’s Football Welcomes Manager, said: “It’s wonderful to see even more clubs laying aside their rivalries this weekend and coming together to say refugees are welcome here. At a time when politics is often dominated by hate-filled and divisive rhetoric, this shows that there is another story to be told.

“Footballers with a refugee background have been making their mark on professional football in the UK for many years, with many playing at a national level for their adopted country or country of origin. Football clubs are at the heart of their communities and have a vital role to play in helping people who’ve fled conflict and persecution settle in to a new country and culture.”

The clubs participating in Football Welcomes – including Arsenal, Everton, Tottenham and Reading men’s and women’s teams, and Crystal Palace, West Ham, Glasgow Celtic, Derby County and Brentford men’s teams – will be putting on various activities and events over the weekend to show their support for and solidarity with refugees. 

In Norfolk, school children have sent questions to Norwich City midfielder Mario Vrančić for a video interview about his family’s experience of fleeing Bosnia to Germany when the Balkan conflict erupted in the early 90s. Sixty-one local schools and nearly 20,000 children are participating in ‘Norfolk Welcomes – Football Welcomes’ on Friday (20 April), when normal lessons will be suspended and the children will spend the day learning about migration to East Anglia and the role that football can play welcoming refugees.

Mario Vrančić said: “It was clear the war in Bosnia was coming and we had to leave to find safety. My entire family went to different countries. The hardest thing was leaving my grandparents behind and trying to start a new life in a new country.”

On moving to Norwich at the start of this season, he said: “People here have been really friendly and helped me adapt to this city.”

Premier League participation

Newcastle United and Southampton are hosting stadium tours, while the West Ham Foundation is putting on a morning of football activities for young refugees and asylum seekers living locally. Leicester City is supporting weekly football sessions, organised by the charity City of Sanctuary, with a coach, equipment and free tickets to games when possible. They will be celebrating Football Welcomes together on Saturday with football activities for around 40 refugees and people seeking asylum. Tottenham will be welcoming a group of Syrian refugees to their game against Watford on April 30, and Swansea City has invited a refugee family the club has been supporting to their game against Chelsea next weekend.

Arsenal, Stoke City and Everton all work with refugees through their foundations or community trusts and will be promoting Football Welcomes online or in match programmes, as will Watford.

Former Everton winger Steven Pienaar said on a recent visit to a weekly football session for refugees and people seeking asylum run by Everton’s community trust: “After having been through so much, fleeing war and persecution, then arriving in the UK facing a new language and culture, these sessions give people a chance to forget about their troubles for an hour or so, to make friends and feel part of the community.”

Crystal Palace’s foundation, Palace for Life, will be releasing a short film about a young Afghan refugee who has taken part in one of their community schemes this weekend, while Huddersfield Town have invited refugees and asylum seekers for a training session followed by a match and tickets to their next home game against Everton on 28 April.

FA Women’s Super League participation

In the FA Women’s Super League, Durham Women, Reading Women and Spurs Ladies have all invited refugees and people seeking asylum to their games this weekend, and players on those teams as well as Everton Ladies, Sunderland Ladies, Bristol City Women and Aston Villa Ladies will be warming up in Football Welcomes t-shirts. Aston Villa will also be producing a short video featuring Liz Ejupi, one of their players with a refugee background, while some of the Chelsea Ladies squad will be promoting Football Welcomes online.

England defender, Anita Asante, who spent four seasons with FC Rosengard in Malmö, Sweden, before re-signing for Chelsea Ladies this year, said: “During my time in Malmö I was fortunate enough to meet and interact with refugees from all over the world, so for me this weekend holds so much importance.”

Scottish Premiership participation

Glasgow Celtic will be offering free tickets to their next home game and a stadium tour, while Rangers are also putting on a stadium tour. In Edinburgh, Big Hearts, Heart of Midlothian’s community trust, will be handing out Football Welcomes stickers and leaflets and promoting the initiative online.

English Football League participation

In the English Football League on Saturday, Brentford are at home to QPR, Barnsley are at Leeds and Derby County are at home to Middlesbrough – all will be holding matches for refugee participants in their community programmes, followed by tickets for the game.

Amnesty Ambassadors the Kaiser Chiefs said: “Football is an international language that almost everyone connects with. Displacement of people is a massive issue in the world today and we all have a role to play in welcoming and showing solidarity with people who have had to flee their homes.”

Meanwhile, Blackburn Rovers, Blackpool, Bradford City, Cambridge United, Forest Green Rovers, Hull City, Rochdale, Oxford United and Sheffield United are offering free tickets, while Reading have invited local refugee team Sanctuary Strikers to their game against Ipswich Town next weekend. Notts County Football in the Community are putting on a stadium tour for refugees and people seeking asylum who participate in their weekly football sessions.

Shaun Harvey, EFL Chief Executive, said: "The EFL is once again proud to be supporting Amnesty International's Football Welcomes campaign which champions the lasting contribution refugees have made across our professional game.

"EFL clubs are at the heart of 72 communities across England and Wales and play a vital role in promoting integration, so I'm delighted to see so many showing their support and extending a warm welcome to refugees."

Non-league participation

In non-league football, Bath City, who play in the National League South, are inviting refugees and asylum-seekers to their next home game, and to enjoy a tour of the ground, while Leyton Orient have offered free tickets to this weekend’s game against Wrexham. Players for City of Liverpool, which works with refugees and people seeking asylum through its community programmes, will be warming up in Football Welcomes t-shirts before their game against AFC Darwen.

Ken Loach, I, Daniel Blake and Looking for Eric director and Bath City FC fan, said: “As a community-owned club, we will certainly play our part in this campaign. People leave their homes through fear, desperation, hunger or war. They need our support and to know they are welcome. A shared passion for football can bring us together.”

Meanwhile, refugee teams Nations United in Chichester, Plymouth Hope, Revive Refugee FC in Manchester and Leeds-based football project Yorkshire St Pauli, will be taking part in Football Welcomes with games and tournaments this weekend.

History of UK refugee footballers

From the group of Spanish Civil War child refugees who sailed from Bilbao to safety in Southampton in May 1937 and went on to play for Southampton, Wolves, Coventry, Brentford, Cambridge United, Colchester United and Norwich City in the 1940s and 50s, to former Bolton Wanderers midfielder Fabrice Muamba whose family escaped persecution in Zaire (today’s Democratic Republic of Congo) in the 90s, and the likes of Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka, Chelsea’s Victor Moses, Stoke City’s Xherdan Shaqiri and Manchester City Women’s Nadia Nadim today, footballers with a refugee background have been making their mark on the most popular game in the world for decades.

Full player and celebrity quotes:

Keira Knightley, West Ham fan and Bend It Like Beckham actor, said: “It’s great to see women’s teams taking part in Amnesty’s brilliant Football Welcomes initiative this year. It can be much more difficult for girls and women to access and participate in sport and this sends a clear and important message that football is for everyone. I’m over the moon that the Hammers are joining so many other clubs to say ‘Refugees Welcome’ this weekend.”

Juliet Stevenson, Amnesty Ambassador and Bend It Like Beckham co-star, said: “I may have played a football-agnostic mum in Bend it Like Beckham but in reality there’s a lot about football that I love, particularly the sense of community it can create. Amnesty’s Football Welcomes weekend is a brilliant celebration of this and a wonderful acknowledgment of the contribution refugees make to the game. What better way to send a positive message that refugees are welcome here.”

Stephen Fry, actor and Norwich City fan, said: “You don’t have to look far to see the contribution refugees are making to our country and the game, including our own Mario Vrančić. I’m so proud that Norwich is supporting Amnesty’s Football Welcomes weekend.”

Patrick Stewart, actor and Huddersfield FC fan, said: “It’s brilliant to see football clubs taking a stand to support refugees and to make them feel welcome here. Amnesty’s Football Welcomes campaign could not be more timely and I’m delighted Huddersfield Town and so many other clubs are getting involved.”

Dame Judi Dench, actor and Everton fan, said: “Football, and all sports, are for everyone to enjoy. How wonderful that the football clubs are making this particular stand and ensuring that everybody is included and made welcome.”

Kaiser Chiefs, who are Leeds United fans and Amnesty Ambassadors, said: “It is a pleasure to be involved with Football Welcomes again. Football is an international language that almost everyone connects with. Last year we had a lot of clubs involved, whether it was organising a training session, a game for refugees or simply tickets to a match. It meant so much to the lives of the refugees and people seeking asylum who took part. With even more clubs participating this year, it’s fantastic to see the welcome from football being extended even further.

“Displacement of people is a massive issue in the world today and there are a number of professional footballers with personal experience of this. Football Welcomes helps draw attention to the fact that this is not just an issue that only affects people living far away, but one that affects anyone and everyone. We all have a role to play in welcoming and showing solidarity with people who have had to flee their homes.”

Ken Loach, Bath City fan and director of I, Daniel Blake and Looking for Eric, said: “Football Welcomes is a brilliant initiative and not much beats an afternoon at Twerton Park, so I’m thrilled that Bath City is involved. As a community-owned club, we will certainly play our part in this campaign. No one wants to be a refugee. People leave their homes through fear, desperation, hunger or war. They need our support and to know they are welcome. A shared passion for football can bring us together. Football Welcomes refugees indeed.”

Jordan Stephens, Arsenal fan and one half of pop duo Rizzle Kicks, said: “I’ve been an Arsenal fan since birth and am proud of my clubs’ history of community work and supporting refugees. Football Welcomes is a really easy but important way of showing that refugees are welcome in this country.”

Anita Asante, Chelsea and England defender, said: “I’m delighted to support Amnesty International’s second Football Welcomes weekend and celebrate the contribution refugees have made to the much-loved game, and to communities throughout the years.

“During my time in Malmö I was fortunate enough to meet and interact with refugees from all over the world, so for me this weekend holds so much importance. I’m horrified by the way governments of some of the richest countries in the world have been turning their backs on refugees over the last couple of years. I feel lucky to have discovered my great passion in life in football. It can give you a real sense of purpose and belonging, and both are much needed when you’ve had to leave everything behind.”

Steven Pienaar, former Everton winger, said on a recent visit to a weekly football session for refugees and people seeking asylum run by Everton in the Community: “After having been through so much, fleeing war and persecution, then arriving in the UK facing a new language and culture, these sessions give people a chance to forget about their troubles for an hour or so, to make friends and feel part of the community.

“I’m really pleased my club is taking an active role in this and sending a clear message that Everton FC welcomes refugees.

“I was born in apartheid South Africa and I know how sport, including football, can help to bring people together and break down barriers. I’m really proud that Everton is taking part in Amnesty International’s Football Welcomes weekend.”

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