Needs assessment

As can be seen from the table showcasing the FIRE project partners’ input, the various and multiple obstacles that civil society actors face when engaging with migrants in a football context diverge according to their specific national environment. When they express their most urgent needs, however, both specificities and overlaps are noticeable – which remains in line with what can be filtered from the literature.

In addition to previously quoted publications and input from project partners, this section also draws on some recently published documents:

  • A particular wide-reaching and pertinent needs inventory was carried out by the Sport Welcomes Refugees project and published by the Camino NGO in 2017 in a concise booklet named Sports for Refugees: Challenges for instructors and their support needs.
  • On a very practical and administrative level, two brochures (in German language) issued by the German football federation (Deutscher Fussball-Bund)[2], draw on the feedback from the immense echo to their 2015 initiative “1:0 für ein Willkommen” (“1-0 for a welcome”), which offered a dedicated seed-funding programme for grassroots clubs. In the meantime, the initiative has been aptly re-named “2:0 für ein Willkommen”, in order to highlight the need for sustained engagement, rather than one-off actions. Over 3,600 German clubs have seized the opportunity to obtain some kick-start funding for local projects.
  • In responding to some of these needs, the detailed training module developed in 2018 by the ASPIRE project (“Activity, Sport, Play for the Inclusion of Refugees”) led by ENGSO[3], also provides relevant feedback about the priorities that have been identified by the consortium of 15 partner organisations.
  • In a similar manner, the ISCA “Integration of Refugees Through Sport” online course, provides help and expert advice on some of the typical needs of sport grassroots actors willing to engage with refugees. In four complete downloadable modules, enriched with expert interviews on video and reference to numerous good practices, questions such as “how to start”, “how to acquire intercultural understanding”, or “how to find partnerships” are addressed, including an extensive glossary that confirms the necessity of conceptual clarity outlined in the categorisation and definitions section.

The top-ten needs of civil society actors may be summarised, somewhat subjectively, as follows:

  1. To escape isolation and engage in partnerships with other actors;
  2. To reach out successfully to refugees and attract them to the club;
  3. To improve project management skills (including evaluation and dissemination skills);
  4. To raise perennial funding (for activities, equipment, membership fees, transport, etc.);
  5. To reduce linguistic barriers;
  6. To break through cultural walls;
  7. To reach out to female refugees;
  8. To facilitate the integration of refugees into regular (and competitive) football;
  9. To engage refugees themselves in volunteering activities;
  10. To fight against prejudice and rejection in society.

These are briefly developed in the following sub-sections.

[2] DFB, Willkommen im Verein! Fussball mit Flüchtlingen. Frankfurt: 2016; as well as DFB, Im Fussball zu Hause! Flüchtlinge im Fussballverein. Frankfurt: 2016.
[3] ASPIRE project consortium, Aspire Training Module, Stockholm: 2018.


1. To escape isolation and engage in partnerships with other actors

One remarkable feature of the many initiatives, programmes, and actions led at a grassroots level is their incredibly diverse and fragmented character. While it makes utmost sense to do things in one’s familiar local environment, a sense of isolation seems to be inevitable at some stage. Volunteers in sport have tight timetables, between their commitments, their professional duties and their family obligations. But contacting and engaging with other actors or stakeholders, from different sectors of society, is both time and energy consuming.

Nonetheless, engaging in partnerships with other actors is not only beneficial for all involved, but indispensable for meaningful actions, and almost automatically leads to other contacts that may be helpful in the future. In other words: the required time and energy must be found somewhere. They may be found through additional human resources that do not necessarily cost much.

  • In many countries, national volunteering schemes exist, and not-for-profit organisations are ideal beneficiaries.
  • Also, some training institutions – from social sciences universities to vocations schools for social work – are delighted to offer meaningful internship opportunities to their students.
  • Even for an undergraduate business school student (or team of students), it might be a very rewarding mission to draft a “business plan” for an initiative related to football and refugees.

Time for the search of suitable partners may also be found through a more efficient delegation of tasks within the club or organisation, thus liberating time for the project initiator. That’s where the added value of professional project management skills lies, which is another need that is repeatedly expressed.


2. To reach out successfully to refugees and attract them to the club

A good idea for a football initiative targeting a migrant public is not a guarantee for success. It is also important to find suitable participants and convince them of theor offer’s added value. Reaching out to refugees is still mentioned by many volunteers as a challenge, also for geographical reasons (many refugee homes or centres are located in the periphery of towns).

As often in life, personal contacts are key. It is important (and sometimes, it must be said, a question of luck) to identify the individual in a refugee centre who is open to the idea of providing structured football opportunities with the help of an external partner. In some cases, locally based associations that deal with migration and asylum issues may be helpful inter­mediaries. These associations generally know well how to reach migrants, who they are, what their needs are, etc. It is also important to prepare a good argumentation about the tangible benefits for everybody and one’s own motivation, (always, of course, with sufficient sensitivity for the terminology issues raised in Chapter 2).

Punctual offers without further commitment may be best suited to establish first contact (asking for regular commitment right away is intimidating, especially for individuals who might be forced to move again to another location).

From numerous reports it appears that during this period of reaching out to refugees, frustration management is also an essential skill for all volunteers! It is necessary to be mentally prepared for a lack of reliability or assiduity, for fluctuating respect for a common set of rules that seems perfectly “normal” to the instructor, or for unrealistic self-evaluation in terms of performance level. The Sport Welcomes Refugees booklet repeatedly warns of inevitable “disappointment on the part of the sports instructors, who might feel that their offer is underappreciated” (p.7). It therefore makes sense to be prepared for these emotions.

As the DFB brochures point out, when reaching out to refugees it is of great importance, to promote the idea within the club or association (pointing to both humanistic arguments and concrete benefits for both sides).


3. To improve project magement skills

Many highly motivated volunteers rely on their remarkable improvisation skills and experience. Setting up a successful project aimed at a very different target group requires, however, a more systematic approach. The FAIRES project, for instance, identified project management skills as one of the most pressing issues, and provides guidelines for all different steps of running even modest projects:

  1. Precise definition of the project’s objectives, target public, and resources required.
  2. Realistic budgetary planning (and close monitoring of resources and expenditures).
  3. Securing infrastructure access.
  4. Appropriate communication to both target group and internal stakeholders.
  5. Monitoring and evaluating of the project’s progress and impact.
  6. Effective dissemination to all stakeholders and the general public.

Providing compact training sessions in project management skills, with the aim of “professiona­lising” initiatives and actions, would definitely be helpful, even if only to serve as a “refresher” for experienced volunteers.


4. To raise perennial funding (for activities, equipment, membership fees, transport, etc.)

Funding is a permanent issue for volunteer-driven initiatives. There are several distinct difficulties, starting with the lack of “bureaucratic” know-how to develop successful funding applications. As the ECORYS report for the European Commission rightly states, the “lack of time to engage with and gather knowledge about possible funding opportunities” is a real problem, as is “the relatively short-term nature of funding sources available for projects, (…) which leaves smaller organisations vulnerable when funding expires” at the end of a cycle of one or two years.[1]

As a result, sustainable initiatives are in need of multi-channel funding, in order to bridge periods, in which one funding stream may expire before another one can replace it. This is of course easier said than done.

Like many other aspects of successful engagement, sustained networking, lobbying (in the best sense of the word), and fundraising require specific skills, time, and energy. They are therefore closely linked to points 5.1 (partnerships) and 5.3 (project management). In consequence, the first remedy for lack of funding opportunities and lobbying know-how is to increase the available human resources, which may not be as difficult as it often seems.

[1] ECORYS, Mapping of good practices relating to social inclusion of migrants through sport. Final report to the DG Education and Culture of the European Commission, Brussels: 2016, p. 24-25.


5. To reduce linguistic barriers

Coaches and instructors are sport enthusiasts, but they cannot be expected to be language teachers. They are used to giving their instructions in a fast and efficient way and may therefore face difficulties to communicate with participants who have little to no command of the local language.

Including participants across linguistic barriers requires particular competences. Rather than proceed by “learning by doing”, it could be helpful to provide coaches with some basic training in non-verbal communication methods. It is just as important to use efficient “ice-breakers” as it is to know what pitfalls should be avoided (talking speed, complicated explanations, exclusive focus on participants with language skills to the detriment of others, etc.).

The ideal scenario would be able to ask volunteer translators from different ethnic communities for help. More realistically, sport instructors (but also club administrators) would greatly benefit from acquiring, in short training sessions, tools for overcoming frustrating language barriers.

At the same time, linking training sessions to genuine language classes has proved to be a very beneficial combination, both in terms of skills and “perception of welcome and goodwill”. The main difficulty consists in finding qualified volunteers with language teaching competences and suitable infrastructure in or around the club grounds.


6. To break through cultural walls

In all evidence, cultural obstacles and pitfalls are particulary numerous and potentially harmful. Culture is based on beliefs and norms, which translate into behaviour patterns (“habits”) that become unconscious and are extremely difficult to change. The very detailed chapter on “Intercultural dialogue” within the ASPIRE project’s training module provides an in-depth introduction into how culture functions as an orientation system for human beings.

It begins with migrants’ perception of the place of sport in everyday life. Football enthusiasts may be surprised to find among some migrant groups a certain disregard for the benefits that sport can bring and that seem so obvious to Europeans. Certain parents may consider football as wasted time for their children; and certain men may have not very constructive views about the suitability of football for women and girls.

Role models and mediators (who are not necessarily sportspeople themselves, but trusted in the migrant community) are extremely helpful in opening up some loopholes in the cultural walls.

Concerning the repeatedly made observation that many cultures of origin do not have the same idea of commitment to social groups outside the family (not to mention perceptions of punctuality and reliability which already differ widely within Europe), it appears that social media like Whatsapp or Facebook groups or other trending networks seem to be tailored to cross-cultural use and increase “commitment pressure” in a gentle and engaging way.

On a general note, in order to break through such cultural walls, grassroots volunteers need inter­cultural competences. This starts first and foremost with a keen awareness of one’s own cultural “straightjacket” – cultural sensitivity starts with self-awareness. Compact workshops on intercultural competence (as well as some fundamental “do’s and don’t’s”) are an excellent tool and may not be too complicated to arrange. Moreover, there are interesting digital tools available for free, like the ASPIRE module mentioned above.

The overall aim of intercultural competence is “empathy” for refugees’ situations, heterogeneity, and cultural imprint. Patience, persistence and humour are the best pre-conditions for acquiring these competences. Just as important is to have realistic expectations about one’s role and the extent to which one may contribute to the very long integration process. There is so much that one can do, and it does not act in anybody’s favour to become overwhelmed by the difficulties or by the psychological burden some situations may provoke.


7. To reach out to female refugees

In the most welcoming countries, many migrants who have obtained official refugee status make use of their right to family reunification. As a result, the number and percentage of women and girls among refugees across Europe is likely to keep increasing. At the same time, experience from good practices reports shows that it is more difficult to reach out to potential female participants, for a variety of reasons:

  • culture-based reluctance, as mentioned above (need 6);
  • suitable infrastructure (including changing rooms) and regular access to it;
  • lack of female instructors;
  • appropriate training hours (ideally before dark);
  • obligations of childcare and therefore lack of availability.

Again, the presence of role models is of invaluable help. In the absence of “cultural ambassadors” who have the clout to convince potential participants (or their fathers and brothers), even digital testimonials that are easily spread may be an asset.

In more concrete terms, three recommendations are repeatedly advanced by the literature:

  • It might be useful to start a football offer with female-only groups, rather than mixed ones.
  • A childcare solution should be offered right away, ideally in the form of parallel offers for both women and their children, otherwise with childcare on-site.
  • Tolerance is needed with regard to unusual sports clothing, especially concerning the hijab or other dress codes European instructors might find not very useful for sporting purposes. In other words, it is important to remember the priorities at stake.


8. To facilitate the access of refugees into regular football

Recruiting talented players among refugees for the competitive teams of a football club is of course an excellent means of integration. There are, however, some issues to be considered:

  • Such integration requires a minimum of geographical stability and therefore only makes sense with officially recognised refugees who are not “in transit” for another destination.
  • It is important to be well informed about possible restrictions to freedom of movement for refugees in the country concerned.
  • It is also necessary to gather information about health insurance and liability issues, which in most countries do not pose a problem to recognised refugees.


9. To engage refugees themselves in volunteering activities

It is obvious that successfully recruiting individuals, with a migrant background, for any kind of position in a football club (coaches, referees, administrators) is a major step in favour of sustainable inclusion and participation:

  • The keyword in this context is, of course, “responsibility”, which is based on commitment and is bound to increase confidence and self-esteem.
  • Even more importantly, each individual who takes over some responsibility within a club or association becomes at the same time a role model and multiplier of the integration message.
  • And the change from a “passive” beneficiary to an “active” provider of a relevant social service changes perception on both sides – among the migrant community and among the locals.

This need has already received close scrutiny by several in-depth analyses within the framework of previous projects on sports and migrant groups. In 2016, The European Sport Inclusion Network (ESPIN) published both a conference report on the Equal Access and Volunteering of Migrants, Minorities and Refugees in Sport (32 pages) and a Handbook on Volunteering of Migrants in Sport Clubs and Organisations (56 pages). Both provide helpful information, background reflections, and concrete recommendations. The SIVSCE project led between 2015 and 2017 by the Syddansk Universitet also worked on Social inclusion and volunteering in sports clubs in Europe (SIVSCE).


10. To fight against prejudice and rejection in society

Stereotypes, prejudice or outright xenophobia are not the preserve of extreme right wing ideologists. They can come to the surface in everyday situations, often unwillingly. Football, as a contact sport where emotions fly high, is a context, in which sudden interpersonal conflicts are prone to breaking out. These can, in turn, lead to racist insults or discriminatory behaviour.

Instructors should be aware of this risk and, ideally, benefit from a training in how to resolve such conflicts appropriately. The Sport Welcomes Refugees project suggests that grassroots football clubs formulate “guidelines outlining the club’s and/or the association’s coordinated approach towards such incidents, enabling them to handle corresponding situations quickly, appropriately and in accordance with the club’s and/or the association’s stance.

Beyond such internal incidents and anticipations, grassroots football can, in all modesty, also contribute to challenging a skeptical or hostile public opinion, in disseminating effectively about positive case studies and humble “success stories” of integration initiatives that are beneficial to society. Getting in touch, if possible, with sympathetic or at least neutral local media, can open opportunities to tell such stories. Organising local public events that provide information – with the help of an academic expert or community official – about the exact benefits exactly a refugee status entails in one’s country. This may counteract, at least partly, the “fake” information that is circulated on such matters.

It is not a football club’s mission to engage in a fight against massive social and political trends. But that does not mean that it should not take a stand for its principles when speaking to media or other civil society groups.