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EFL Week of Action: Wigan Athletic bring football sessions to Afghan refugees

Action from Wigan Athletic's latest session
About 90 Afghan refugees attended Wigan Athletic’s latest session

“They were going stir crazy in the hotel for 24 hours a day.”

Like many areas, Wigan has welcomed a large number of refugees from Afghanistan after the Taliban seized back control of the country last year.

As they make their way through the legal steps to live in the United Kingdom, many are stuck in hotels awaiting paperwork to allow them to find employment.

For the English Football League’s Week of Action, BBC Sport caught up with Wigan Athletic’s programme which brings football to their local refugee community.

‘Come and just forget about everything’

After refugees moved into a nearby hotel, Wigan Council approached Wigan Athletic Community Trust to see if there was anything they could do to help.

What they came up with was a weekly football session at Stadium Way, the League One club’s training facility.

Steven Eastwood, the trust’s community development manager, told BBC Sport: “They were going stir crazy in the hotel for 24 hours a day. They couldn’t go out or do anything else.

“We worked with the club and academy who lent us the facility round the corner. It’s indoor, 4G, astroturf, and an aspirational facility.

“To just come and play football and let loose for an hour and a half a week and just forget about everything.

“We were getting kids aged eight years old up to the older adults coming. It was just a case of coming down and enjoying some football – no frills, we just put the cones out, the goals out and they enjoyed themselves.”

‘A decent level’

The EFL’s Week of Action runs between Monday 4 April and Friday 8 April, however the sessions Wigan offer have been available since the start of the year, with 90 members in attendance for Wednesday’s latest meeting.

“There’s a couple of lads who are a really good level. Likewise there’s some that probably don’t really play very much but they just enjoy the fact that they have a run around,” Eastwood continued.

“They told me that cricket is the main sport in Afghanistan, but they still love football and getting involved.

“There’s some good players to be fair. One of the older gentleman claimed that he used to play for the Afghanistan national team in goal.”

Wigan goalkeeper Ben Amos attended at this week’s event and was impressed with by the quality, particularly a talented keeper.

“He was great, as they all were,” Amos told BBC Sport.

“The goalkeeper was really enthusiastic. He had a massive smile on his face and he was loving every second.”

‘Football should be enjoyed by everyone’

Wigan Athletic keeper Ben Amos was part of Wednesday's Afghan refugee football session
Wigan Athletic keeper Ben Amos was part of Wednesday’s Afghan refugee football session

“Football clubs have the ability to be that pillar in the community and bring people together. It’s an old cliche that football should be enjoyed by everyone, but it’s true,” Amos added.

“It’s brilliant to see that a football club such as Wigan and others around the country have that power to do good.

“They’re all getting stuck into each other. I was taken aback by how enthusiastic they were. You could tell who was letting off steam and having a great time.”

The importance of what the club and the Trust does was echoed by Eastwood, who said a club is more than just the matches it plays.

“The language barrier was a little bit difficult at first. But then I suppose we got used to the fact that football is its own language,” Eastwood said.

“A football club is just seen as what happens on a Saturday afternoon at 3pm but it’s not, it’s what’s happens throughout the week during the day and in the evenings.

“It’s great that the players can take the glory, but actually the football clubs mean so much more to the communities than just what happens on Saturday.”

Keeping fit and learning to cook in Week of Action

Elsewhere during the EFL’s Week of Action, Luton Town are running their 12-week ‘Fit Hatters’ behaviour and lifestyle change programme.

The initiative is focused on male and female participants aged 35 to 65 where they are required to have a specific weight, waistline and body mass index (BMI).

Hatters forward Elijah Adebayo told BBC Look East: “It’s fantastic and shows what type of club we are. When I came here after the first few months it felt like a family.”

Portsmouth are running a 12-week cookery course entitled ‘Blue Kitchen Back to Work’, to create a pathway into employment, training, further education or volunteering.

The course is aimed at socially inactive and unemployed people who are novice cooks or in need of refreshing their skills.

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