Dzaleka Refugee Camp, Malawi
It is a one hour drive from the capital to the Dzaleka Refugee Camp. Soon the new road, which is being being built by (guess who?) the Chinese, will no longer necessitate the land cruisers currently needed to negotiate the tough terrain.
11,000 refugees from DRC, Rwanda, Burundi and a number of other African countries reside here.
The main purpose of our visit is to meet the members of an incredible football team. The team is called the ‘Dzaleka Leopards Football Team’.
Last year the Leopards entered the region’s premier league. Despite playing on a pitch that would be deemed unplayable in Europe, having almost no resources and struggling to find a dozen pairs of football boots, this team of young men, with seemingly little hope in life, managed to finish third in the league. Their third-placed finish guaranteed promotion to the advanced league.
If they are promoted from this next tier of Malawian football then this team of refugees will compete in the country’s Super League.
It is one of the greatest football stories I have personally ever come across. We meet the lads, discuss their ambitions for the future and discover that enemies have become brothers:
“Congolese and Rwandans might well kill each other in other circumstances. Here Burundians, Rwandans, Congolese and other nationalities are all brothers in the same team. We are friends, team mates and brothers.”
Religion gives many hope and happiness. It also leads to war and suppression. The beauty of football is that it unites billions across the globe. I do not mean this as an atheist statement, because it is not, but to me there is only one true world religion. That world religion is football.
We ask the lads whether they dare dream of one day playing in the top tier; of playing international football? They all answer in the affirmative. We discuss creating a club crest, logo, motto and unique kit. The boys love our interest. Can you help the Dzaleka Leopards? Can you provide them with a kit, boots and training equipment?
It might not seem important on the surface of things but this team unites an entire refugee camp of 11,000 individuals. It gives everyone who lives here hope. It says: I can dream; I can achieve.
Together with the support of the Red Cross, the UNHCR and the members of this camp the Leopards go from strength to strength. There are now seven teams here; the stars of the camp train the youngsters.
And now the football is being used to promote positive and educational messages such as “Youths against the spread of HIV/AIDS.” within the camp.
If you believe in fairytales then believe in the Dzaleka Leopards. They might possibly be the best refugee football team in the world.
Bjorn and I were honoured to spend the day with them and to participate in a penalty shoot out competition in front of hundreds. I am delighted to say I slotted my first penalty away in the bottom corner, sending the keeper the wrong way. Bodes well for England v Germany in the semi finals of this year’s World Cup finals.