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I was about to leave my house on what was a surprisingly sunny Glasgow day in March 2012. It was my penultimate day in my home city before flying out to Barcelona to start a new life as a TEFL teacher, far removed from my degree and work experience in the financial sector. I had prepared as well as I thought possible. I had completed the TEFL course and arranged accommodation. My bags were packed, money exchanged and passport up to date. Yet I still had that feeling within my gut that I think everyone has before setting off to pastures new. A mixture of excitement and apprehension, of looking forward to what was ahead but slightly petrified all the same.
An old flat-mate had put me in touch with a friend of a friend, an Irishman by the name of Ross Rowley who had been teaching in Barcelona for close to three years. He had provided me with plenty of details of where to start once I had stepped off the plane. Get your social security and NIE sorted, open a bank account, get CVs sent out to the academies, and then hit the streets for face-to-face meetings with the directors of studies.
However, as I moved the computer mouse to close down my computer before leaving my house, he asked a simple question which in hindsight became the most important aspect of settling into this wonderful city; “Do you play any ball?” I said that I did, and he went on to provide my with the details of the team he was playing for, Michael Collins. Two days after I landed in Barcelona, I turned up for training and and sought out Ross.
I was impressed with the facilities, a mini stadium in Can Dragó, just a hop, skip and a jump from Fabra i Puig metro. It is used by Piferrer and Technofutbol in the third regional league, as well as by youth teams, run by FC Alzamora and Fundación Marcet, but is now also let out to teams within the BIFL, (the Barcelona International Football League), for midweek training sessions and league games on Saturday afternoons.
From the first training session and a chat over a couple of cervezas in the adjoined bar afterwards, it was obvious that the team and league format was well organised. I had an idea of this from looking at the league’s website the evening before. It showed the time and devotion given by those passionate about amateur football and the service it provided to all involved.
As the team sat around the table talking, the different accents showed the diversity of nations playing. English, Irish, Dutch, Spanish, Catalan, German, Georgian and French to name a few: this was a multi-national team playing together, and as amateur football goes, sharing a beer together. As the weeks passed, the inside knowledge and advice from foreigners and locals within the team was endless and invaluable. A friend’s flat for rent, job opportunities on the horizon, places to dine, events and parties that shouldn’t be missed. This is the kind of social circle that anyone arriving in a new city dreams of. And the cyclical nature of the organisation, with people coming and going over time, makes it what it is, a family within a community. Once settled and armed with knowledge, I felt it my duty to put an arm around a newcomer to the team and to share my pearls of wisdom to help them to settle in as seamlessly as I did. Ross Toal, from Dublin, is captain of the Michael Collins team and he agrees that the mutual support aspect is an important part of the league. “I think our team, and the league in general, makes a lot of people over-stay their planned time here. We have a very special group and I feel lucky to be part of it.”
However, the league did not reach this stage overnight. The founder of BIFL, Nick Simons, arrived in Barcelona at the beginning of the nineties, and soon found out that it wasn’t easy to find a team to play with. From his frustration, he determined to take what was then a Saturday kick-about on any patch of spare ground the players could find, (usually a dirt field in those days), and turn it into something more professional and rewarding for the aspiring English teachers he met at the time. He soon discovered that his football-playing peers in the city were just as enthusiatic about the idea. The first season saw only eight teams compete, split into two groups of four, which meant only a handful of games for each team. Money was tight, sponsorship hard to gain, players swapped between teams so games could be played and people even volunteered to be referees of their own accord! It’s fair to say that the league was an organised shambles in its early years. But it was the beginning, and a beginning that has grown and prospered in the following 22 years.
I talked to Nick, (who is still president of the league and also manager of The Black Sheep), and fellow committee member, Steve Varley, the current manager of reigning champions Michael Collins. They explained how the league runs now and the work that goes into keeping it all going smoothly. Weekly meetings are held to record scores, goal-scorers, bookings and suspensions and to re-arrange fixtures. On top of that, the committee keeps the website up to date, buys trophies for the eventual winners and makes sure that fees are paid for the pitches. To pay the fees, sponsorships are secured for each team, and these days, to guarantee referees at each game, the referees get paid. Twenty-three teams now compete in the league, complete with sponsored strips, amazing facilities and a camaraderie that money can’t buy.
There’s certainly rivalry within the league, but players, managers and fans (usually visiting family and friends) mix and mingle before, during and after the game.
We watch a couple of games as we chat. Steve points out one of the players from a team called The Strollers; “That’s Jimmy Byrne, still playing and as fit as a fiddle, yet he must be about 58. But don’t quote me on that.” Next up is Michael Collins. Nick shakes his head as their star striker, Matt Conway, scores another hat-trick; “He’s the bane of our title challenge. He used to be involved in the Leeds United football academy. He’s still in his early 20s, and his sharpness and pace make it a nightmare for any team to stop him.”
These two remarks, from the guys that have been involved with the league from the outset, show the diversity of players it encompasses. Yet no matter what the standard, age, colour or nationality of player, BIFL always extends a warm and friendly welcome. And it is this that has attracted people like myself, Ross, Nick, Steve, Jimmy and Matt over the last 22 years, and that will, no doubt, continue to do so for many more years.