In the spring of 2016, Giorgos Patlakas was driving along the road to Moria village on the island of Lesbos. He caught sight of a group of young men, running by the roadside. Refugees from the nearby Moria camp, was his first thought. “As an ex-football player myself, I knew from the size of their legs that these runners were most likely footballers,” he smiles.
He pulled over. They were indeed footballers. And refugees from the nearby camp. He asked where they were training. Nowhere. They didn’t have a pitch. The conversation continued and Giorgos, a native of Lesbos, said he would ask around and try to find proper training grounds. “I live in the heart of the refugee crisis and I felt obliged to do something for those people.”
Soon, he had managed to arrange access to the Moria village football ground.
As Giorgos’ relationship with the players developed, and with the 2016 World Cup firmly on everybody’s radar, it was decided to organise a mini World Cup within the camp. Cameroon won, but this wasn’t to be the end of the story.
Moved by the dedication and discipline of the players, and aware of what the ‘beautiful game’ could bring to these men living in the infamous camp, Giorgos established the Moria camp football team. The Cosmos Lesbos Football Club was born, a squad made up of international refugees and asylum seekers.
Since then, over 300 men have played for the club, with some 30 to 50 players actively involved at any one time. The make-up of the team ebbs and flows, as new refugees arrive and existing players make successful applications to move on to mainland Greece.
There are usually around 15 different nationalities in the team. Afghans and Iranians, Iraqis and Syrians, Congolese and Moroccans, all play together, regardless of politics, religion or ethnicity. And, in an effort to bridge the gulf that can exist between refugees and locals, tournaments and friendly matches with local clubs are also taking place. “We’ve also played charity matches to raise money for destitute local Greek families.”
Football gives these men, living in appalling conditions and without a foreseeable end to their exile in sight or a hopeful future within reach, an aim. Their sense of discipline and commitment to the game, to the team, is unfailing. And they show up, whatever the weather, three mornings a week for training.
Giorgos can be tough. Missed a training session? He’ll want to know why. Misbehaviour on the pitch? Exclusion from training for a week. This tough-love approach is working. Giorgos has become a father figure to many of those young men. They address him as ‘father’, ‘papa’, ‘daddy’.
Giorgos’ commitment to the squad is deep, and extends beyond being their manager. He feeds them after training when he can, at times assists with finding lawyers, comforts them when needed and seeks to reassure them about a future beyond the camp.
The club strives to play at professional levels. Most of the players had previously played in their home regional, sometimes national championships. “We all want to play football professionally and we hope that someday it will come true,” says 23-year-old Albert Ngomekome.
Their manager’s efforts have resulted in a high-profile success. One of Giorgos’ protégés, the young Congolese Francis Kalombo, has been hired by Eolikos FC, the first refugee to be playing for a professional club as of January 2019. This is a rare story of success and acceptance in a world where refugees’ skills can go unrecognised, and asylum seekers are often unwelcome.
Without fanfare but with dedication and compassion, Giorgos is changing the lives of many. By believing in these young men, he is giving them back focus and self-esteem, all too rare when one lives in a tent, often having endured and witnessed great suffering, and with an uncertain future ahead.
And Giorgos won’t stop. “My next project? Creating a Cosmos Cup! In Ancient Greek,” he adds, “Cosmos means ‘harmonious universe’.”
Sport can play a transformative role in making life better for those stuck between borders. Three Peas are looking for sponsors to support Giorgos Patlakas and the Cosmos Lesbos FC team for the rental of the pitch, football kits, coaching.
Do you know a football club or a football association who might be interested in sponsoring Cosmos Lesbos FC?
Do you work in the sport industry or know someone who does?
If so, please get in touch!