How football is fighting social exclusion in the heart of Madrid

When Dolores Galindo set up a grassroots football club in central Madrid, she never expected it to change her view of the world. Three years later and the Dragones de Lavapies club is alive with the sound of excitement and laughter as 150 kids from 30 different nationalities – many of them immigrants and refugees living in this diverse neighbourhood – mix freely without a care in the world.

It's a far cry from the turmoil of recent weeks after Catalonia's referendum for independence was brutally repressed by Spanish police.

If only, says Dolores, adults could behave like these kids who don't even notice if their friends are Muslim or Christian until they sit down to eat together.

"The children are aged between four and 16 years old and they come from different cultures, but mainly they are immigrants including some refugees," she says.

"They are from Syria, Venezuela and Colombia, and we also have a lot of people coming from Africa and Bangladesh. Mainly they are immigrants who have settled here in this very densely populated area in the centre of Madrid.

"In the beginning it just started as parents living in a highly diverse community, but we didn't know the strength that football was going to have here. We didn't even suspect it.

"Suddenly a lot of kids started to come and join us. We said 'do you want to play in a league?' but they were already playing and trying to create their own structure, so we just helped them. That's why we have a kids' name 'Dragons' - because it's mythological. We wanted to respect that and push it.

"We so enjoy helping children to integrate and we think that there is a big opportunity that we never expected to take. Football is the excuse to bring them together. Yes, perhaps they are all different – but there are a lot of things that unite us and that we can cheer together."

The last three years have changed Dolores forever, and she feels football – if used properly - could do much more to take other people on a similar journey. With the outcome, for example, that more empathy and compassion is shown towards immigrants and refugees who have been forced to flee their own countries.... only to encounter prejudice and discrimination in Europe.

Tackling unconscious hatred
"When we see the hate that's going on, of course we have to fight to stop it, but we are more aware of it now," she says.

"We are middle-class Spanish people, and before now we hadn't seen what it was like to be a black person in Madrid.

"Three years later, we have an idea of what that must be like for someone to go to a match and for other people to say things and it get ugly. We didn't know it was so heavy. Of course we knew we had to be on the right side, but now we have been educated.

"Now when we go to a shop with one of our Moroccan boys and we see and hear what he experiences, we know that it shouldn't be like that.

"So if you want to change it, you have to learn that it is happening."

Compared to her club, Dolores feels like professional football is in "another galaxy" - but she sees signs of hope for the beautiful game.

"I think this could be the point of football in the future, and it would be a great thing. Of course there is some distance between what they (football clubs and authorities) are doing and what, ethically, they should be doing. Then if you look at grassroots organisations across the country, and Europe, we are doing our best. It's not easy and it's very demanding, but I think if we keep working and setting the right example, we could achieve a lot.

"It's good to hear about all of the other organisations taking part in the Football People action weeks. When you know that they are doing similar things in other cities and countries, it helps us a lot."

To mark the action weeks, the club will hold a photography exhibition in collaboration with the photographer Jesus Gabaldón, who has previously travelled to Greece, the Balkans and Calais to tell the story of Syrian refugees. Now he has turned his camera on Dragones de Lavapies to help raise awareness of the incredible work the club is doing right in the centre of Madrid.

"We thought this may be a chance for us to show other people in Spain that there is another way to play football, and that this is a way to integrate and be part of something," says Dolores.

"This is quite different to what people in Spain normally think about football. These pictures and images work because they are reflective; they are about children thinking and dreaming, they are about parents protecting their kids."

Playing for inclusion
Throughout each week, children play football at the club and receive support from a myriad of other organisations, from the Red Cross and Save the Children to local agencies and community groups. This includes the local council who use the club to help tackle absenteeism.

"We have an agreement with the local municipality that if they have kids who they think need to play, we can help them. We are very pleased that they thought 'okay here we have a tool to encourage the kids to go to school'."

The secret to the club's success here, says Dolores, is "trying not to be too prescriptive".

"The big teams here such as Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid say 'okay if you don't get good grades, you are not playing football'. We don't do that; if we did, we wouldn't have any players! They are not failing because they want to or because they are not working hard enough, it is because they have a lot of things going on in their lives, so we have to encourage them to study but we would never say 'you cannot play football' as well."

As for the future, it's amazing to hear someone in such humble surroundings cite the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals around education and poverty as their main focus, and talk about encouraging "global citizenship" among the children at the club.

"We want them to know they are citizens of the world, they are boys and girls coming from different national backgrounds. We have kids from the Sahara, from Morocco and from Ukraine and Russia. So we don't look at what separates us, we look at what unites us.

"We have such wonderful experiences - we took our kids on a five-hour trip to San Sebastian with some Japanese children. They couldn't understand each other but they played football together and became friends, and eventually they were cheering each other.

"It made me think - if adults behaved like those kids, the world would be a better place!"

Simon Lansley for Fare network

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