Steven Pienaar retired from football at the start of March but that did not stop him from lacing up his boots again last week. Like the final days of his illustrious career, however, it did not quite go exactly to plan. “I actually joined in for a bit of five-a-side,” he says. “It was OK – the kids were happy because I lost twice but maybe tomorrow we can get some revenge.”
The South African, who made more than 200 appearances for Everton in two spells, was back on Merseyside in his new role as club ambassador to take part in a weekly coaching session for refugees and asylum seekers. Part of Everton in the Community’s efforts to provide support for some of Liverpool’s most deprived people, Pienaar knows all about battling against the odds.
Middlesbrough give refugees football kit and feeling of belonging
Born in the township of Westbury in Johannesburg during the apartheid years, the 36-year-old’s career took him to Ajax as a teenager and also encompassed spells with Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham and Sunderland.
Now, with a record number of 60 clubs from across the country set to take part in Amnesty UK’s second Football Welcomes initiative this weekend after the success of last year’s inaugural event, Pienaar is hoping schemes like Everton’s can continue to improve the assimilation process.
“We are working with kids from different parts of the world and trying to give them an opportunity to learn English,” he says. “Football is a special sport which brings people together – whatever problems you are having in your life they all seem to go away when you get on to the pitch. 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’ve been in that situation and I’ve always wanted to get involved with the community.”
Started in 2015, it is estimated 140 young people from 25 countries including Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan and Somalia have already benefited from Everton’s community project. Similar initiatives such as Middlesbrough’s Club Together scheme have sprung up around the country as Britain’s football clubs attempt to help ease the transition to a new country.
On Saturday, 12 Premier League clubs including Arsenal, Everton, Tottenham, Crystal Palace and West Ham will be among those showing their support and solidarity with refugees through a variety of activities and events.
“It’s wonderful to see even more clubs laying aside their rivalries this weekend and coming together to say refugees are welcome here,” says Naomi Westland, Amnesty UK’s Football Welcomes manager. “At a time when politics is often dominated by hate-filled and divisive rhetoric, this shows that there is another story to be told. Football clubs are at the heart of their communities and have a vital role to play in helping people who have fled conflict and persecution settle in to a new country and culture.”
Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka, Victor Moses of Chelsea, Stoke’s Xherdan Shaqiri and Manchester City women’s striker Nadia Nadim are among a number of players currently employed by English clubs who were once refugees. They are following in the footsteps of six children who escaped the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s who became professionals, including Norwich’s Antonio and José Gallego. More than 80 years on, the Championship club is hosting Norfolk Welcomes – Football Welcomes, with children from 61 local schools sending questions to the club’s Bosnia and Herzegovina international Mario Vrancic, whose family escaped the Balkan war in the 1990s. “It was clear the war in Bosnia was coming and we had to leave to find safety,” he recalled this week. “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.”
A number of other initiatives down the football pyramid will also be taking place, including tournaments run by refugee teams in Chichester, Plymouth, Manchester and Leeds, with Women’s Super League sides Durham, Reading, Sunderland and Tottenham all offering free tickets for their matches.
Pienaar, who played just four matches for Bidvest Wits in his homeland before being forced to retire due to mounting injury problems, now plans to move into coaching after this summer’s World Cup. He is grateful to be a part of Everton’s community work after not having the chance to bid farewell when he left the club in 2016. “In my last season I was fighting with a lot of injuries and I knew my contract was coming to an end,” he says. “I just wanted to go out on the field just to say goodbye. I was disappointed but it’s in the past and we just have to move on. To get the chance to come back and do something like this with Everton is fantastic.”