Football’s Real Dream Team
“I want to create a safe space where women… can be empowered through football.” Coach Comfort Etim tackles a crisis in her community through her own team of Angels in Liverpool
By Emmie Harrison-West
Photography by Inès Hachou
At its very core, football is about community. There’s the community of players on the pitch, working in tandem and harmony to secure a team effort. Then there’s the community of fans around them, chanting in unison. And there’s the community that engulfs football stadiums with its local pre-match grub – often reflecting the unique faith and culture of the area – followed by post-match pints in warm, welcoming member’s pubs and clubs. The community is football’s unwavering, beating heart.
Except for one women’s football team that is bringing a whole new meaning to the sense of community in football. Based in Toxteth, Liverpool, Comfort’s Angels is made up of a group of inspiring women from across the globe who have sought asylum in the area or gained refugee status in the UK. The team’s coaches and players have created a safe space to be active, seek comfort and feel supported by other women in their community, in an otherwise isolating, alienating time in their lives. While part of a unifying team, one that regularly competes in the local ‘She Inspires’ football league, each member of the team – including its coach Comfort Etim – has faced their own unique version of barriers while seeking asylum in Britain.
It’s why Comfort’s Angel’s have taken centre stage in a rare, five-minute-long documentary, filmed by multimedia platform shado, a self-proclaimed community of artists, activists and journalists fighting for social justice. “The documentary celebrates stories of these amazing women and allows their voices to come through on a subject where their experiences are so often sidelined,” shado co-founder Izzy Pearce tells Glorious. “All of our work is rooted in collaboration and self-narration so it was important that this project was also led by that.” Izzy and her fellow co-founder, Hannah Robathan, worked with the women’s football team for over two years, focusing on relationship building and discussing what themes were the most important for the women to highlight in the short documentary.
“The women wanted it to focus on their power and the importance of football for the community, but also wanted to highlight the specific barriers involved and the hostility of the asylum system,” Izzy tells us. “At every stage of the process, the women were involved and it was led by those who wanted to be interviewed and on screen.” The shado co-founders were introduced to the team in early 2020 by the then-women’s football officer at Amnesty International and taekwondo athlete, Tasneem Tawil. “She told us about Comfort and the team, and asked whether there were ways that shado could help amplify their work,” Izzy adds. “So we started thinking and came up with the idea of creating a short documentary as a medium through which the women in the team could tell their own stories.” The brains behind the ball is mother-of-two Comfort Etim. “Comfort played professional football for Nigeria and got scouted, which was the reason she came to the UK,” Hannah tells us. Sadly, when Comfort arrived in the UK aged 17, the scout turned out to be a fraud and she found herself left alone in a foreign country. She eventually found her feet and started playing football professionally for the Spur’s women’s team before moving to Liverpool.
When Comfort arrived in Liverpool, she was disheartened to learn of so many women who were once like her, feeling both abandoned and overwhelmed by the UK’s asylum system. “She fell in love and had a couple of kids, and was still playing football professionally but recognised the power of football and realised that it could become a space for women to come together as one,” Hannah adds. She wanted to create a safe space of sorts, where once-alienated women like her could feel protected, supported and represented. This is how Comfort’s very own ‘angels’ were born. “I want to create a safe space where women and particularly asylum seeking women and refugees can come and express themselves and be empowered through football,” Comfort explains. “Because I’m a woman with lived experience, who has gone through the asylum system myself, I’m able to identify issues and I’m able to refer the women to organisations and offer support. The majority of them just want to be heard and listened to,” she adds.
One of those people is Hane, the team’s goalkeeper. Hane has shockingly been seeking asylum in the UK for over eight years and feels forgotten by the system. She lives on an allowance of a mere £39 a week, with no opportunity to work as she waits to be granted asylum. “There’s a sense of stigma around people who haven’t got their asylum status as other people think there’s an issue with it,” Hannah explains. Hane didn’t speak English on her arrival from Albania but discovered her rightful community through the Angels. She says that it was her dream as a child to become a footballer. “But where I come from, football is for men, not for women like myself,” she adds. “So this (documentary) is to show the people who don’t believe.”
“One of the most impressive things about Comfort’s Angels is the holistic support it offers,” Izzy tells us. ‘“So not only is it a hugely important space for the women to come together, exercise, take an hour for themselves without childminding being an issue but because Comfort is a caseworker for Refugee Women Connect, she can also identify any issues that the team members may have. She is able to support them or refer them to organisations that can help. “Comfort, as safeguard lead, mentor, coach and friend, is doing such important work and all the team adore her,” Izzy adds. Izzy also tells us that Comfort is a facilitator for further education too, should any of the women want it, and she is currently helping a number of teammates through their coaching qualifications. Over two years, Izzy and Hannah at shado watched Comfort’s Angels grow from 10 women to a 30-strong team – with women on the pitch seeking refuge in the UK from as far as Albania, Azerbaijan, and Nigeria. “There’s a variety of ages,” Hannah explains, with many of the youngest students studying in Liverpool. ‘“The age range is between 16 to 45 or 50.”
“They are friends outside the team and Comfort arranges meals out and even parties at Christmas,” Hannah adds, stating that she feels it is important for the women to socialise and feel integrated into the community. “There’s a real sense of empowerment and there’s so much love for each other.” The documentary highlights the importance of grassroots football, with the women’s game being the tireless target of under-representation, under-funding and under-appreciation. “I think more places like Comfort Angels are needed – we need more safe spaces, where women are invited to be part of a community in an accessible way,” Izzy says. “While it’s great that male refugee players and teams have seen some coverage over the past few years, it is rare that this space is offered to refugee women,” she adds. ‘Without these considerations, it’s easy for women to get left behind and that can lead to huge problems of isolation. I think it’s also a good move to try and involve people from different communities to help foster welcoming and inclusive spaces in communities.”
The love and welcoming, inclusive nature between Comfort’s teammates is truly empowering and clear to see in shado’s documentary, released on March 28. Shado premiered the short at an event in Liverpool with the team, which proved to be ‘really special,’ according to Izzy. “Everyone brought their families and kids to celebrate and there was a real sense that everyone had ownership over the final video. It was really important and amazing to see,” she tells us. “It’s a spotlight on why the team is so important and why it’s so necessary for women in the asylum system,” adds Hannah. “It’s all about integration and inclusion, and everyone is welcome.”