TIGER BAY FC: THE WELSH FOOTBALL CLUB REPRESENTING A DISPLACED COMMUNITY

Cardiff is home to one of the oldest multi-ethnic communities in Britain, having first attracted immigrants to work at its thriving docks during the late 19th century. Among them were a large number of Somali seamen, who settled around the area known locally as Tiger Bay. Almost a century later, a new influx of Somalis arrived in the Welsh capital, forced from their homeland by a civil war that continues to blight the country.

23-year-old Abdi Osman knows all of this. Somali-born and Cardiff raised, he shifts between enthusiastm and sadness as he tells me how the city gained its immigrant community; soon he’s veered off into a discussion on global politics and the pitfalls of nationalism.

What makes the experience a little out of the ordinary is that Abdi plays for Wales’ most intriguing football club – Tiger Bay FC – and that we’re speaking in a store cupboard after a Cardiff Combination League fixture. That’s level eight of the Welsh football pyramid, in case you didn’t know.

Wales’ Premier League is almost anonymous on the country’s sporting agenda, so dropping down a further seven tiers means zero media attention, a mixed bag of playing talent, and seriously modest facilities. This isn’t so much grassroots football as the earliest, most embryonic stage of its seedlings.

There are countless clubs at this level, from north to south, from the English borders to the Irish Sea coast. But Tiger Bay are different. Every player and staff member at this small outfit is either a first or second-generation immigrant – which is particularly notable given that Wales is less ethnically diverse than any region of England. Most are Somali; some were born in Cardiff, others moved to the city as children. They have also fielded Yemeni, Bengali and Bangladeshi players.

The club has existed since 2009 and aims to give local youngsters who might not get a chance elsewhere an opportunity to play football. Not that there is any sense of exclusivity at Tiger Bay; anyone is welcome to join their ranks, so long as they want to keep the ball on the ground and play a passing game.

Despite his age, Abdi is a relative veteran – the club’s elder players are around the 21 mark – and has been turning out for Tiger Bay throughout their short history. He muses that he could perhaps play at a higher level, but he’s more than happy where he is, at a club rooted in his community. It’s a word Abdi uses often; he also works for the local community centre, the offices of which overlook the pitch, and coaches the club’s under-16 side. Abdi moved to Cardiff as a child from Somalia. He talks about civil war in his homeland, the self-declared state of Somaliland, and how he believes nationalism does more to separate than unite. We also chat about football, though it’s definitely a secondary topic.

At this level, clubs are more often than not just a bunch of mates who enjoy a game on Saturday afternoons and a few beers afterwards. That appears to be the case with their opponents on the day, Cathays Conservatives AFC.

But Tiger Bay is about far more than football. Located in an area that continues to house a large Somali population, the club is attached to a neighbouring community centre and has several youth teams in place. They seek to give that community a sense of unity and purpose through football.

The Tiger Bay team pose for their photo, circa 2015 / Via

“We came into existence in 2009,” explains Idris Mohammed, a former player and now the club’s assistant manager. “There was a lot of youth in the area that didn’t have an opportunity to play; other teams weren’t taking them on, for whatever reason. We decided to get a team together around 2009, me and a few other committee members, and ever since we’ve roughly had the same core of people organising us.

“We do it to give these kids something,” he continues. “Discipline, and not just on the field, but off it too. It might be just Saturdays, but that goes a long way. They play football instead of hanging around, so they’re knackered and they’ll go home rather than staying out on the streets. So it’s about the youngsters.”

Like Abdi, Idris was born in Somalia and moved to Cardiff as a child. He admits that the team has had to contend with racism during its short history, but does not give the impression that it has affected their desire to play.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not naive enough to say there’s no racial element; we’ve suffered it, but we just deal with it through the authorities. It’s not something that gets us down. We just get on with our football.”

Their football, as he explains, tries to avoid the hustle and bustle you would usually associate with eighth-tier Welsh competition. “We base our game on playing on the floor,” says Idris. “That’s our philosophy, our ethos.”

Having such a coherent ethos separates Tiger Bay from most clubs at this level. Of course, it won’t always lead to success on the pitch. When I watched them play, on a freezing cold day in February, they were the better footballing side but suffered from their lack of physicality and a few unforced errors (probably not helped by having an average age in the early twenties). Their opponents appear to be closer to their mid-twenties and thirties, slower than the Tiger Bay boys but more wily, and certainly possessing greater strength.

Their home is a modest playing field in Cardiff’s Canal Park, set in the city’s docklands and with the South Wales Islamic Centre for a neighbour. The great white arches of the Millennium Stadium loom in the sky above, the city’s 70,000-seater sporting megadome providing a stark contrast to Tiger Bay’s digs. The pitch is bordered to one side by an industrial estate and to the other by tower blocks and flats. There is no seating, just a wrought iron bar surrounding the perimeter of the pitch from which to hang. 20 minutes before kick-off, a defender named Mo is assembling the goals with the help a few teammates. He hasn’t yet been told if he’ll start, but he seems relaxed as he scoops muddy water from the six-yard box with a training cone.

Locals drift in as the game begins, a stream of semi-interested observers that slowly builds throughout the match. They probably total no more than 50, but it is February in South Wales, freezing cold and periodically raining; you feel there may be more on a warm August afternoon. The docklands vibe is enhanced by seagulls cawing in the distance; at one point a gaggle collect around a scrap of food on the touchline, scattering when the ball pings off a defender and in their direction. Again, not quite the Millennium Stadium.

But then football should not always be about vast stadiums, huge television deals, and squads with no connection to the area they represent. With their emphasis on local community, Tiger Bay offer a reminder that the game can be about inclusion and grassroots development. It can bring together a bunch of kids from different ethnic backgrounds living in a poor part of Cardiff to play football. And while they may have faced prejudice in the past, there is no hint of it from their opponents today, just handshakes and the occasional apology for an over-enthusiastic challenge. Football at this level is often invisible to the wider world, but, for those few who participate and watch, it is an invaluable resource.

This Article was originally published in the Sports Vice

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