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When Patrice Evra met Hackney Wick FC, the club giving players’ dreams extra time

The Man United Legend teamed up with the London grassroots football club and Youtube’s Black Voices Fund to celebrate Mandela Day.

26 Jul

In partnership with YouTube.

Nelson Mandela believed in the power of sport to transform and inspire. The late anti-apartheid activist and South African politician even helped start a football team during the nearly 20 years he spent imprisoned on Robben Island. It’s reported that playing and watching those games helped keep his spirits up

That passion is shared by grassroots football club Hackney Wick FC where the focus is not only sport, but also equipping players with the tools to succeed beyond society’s narrow expectations. To celebrate Mandela’s legacy, six famous faces have joined forces with YouTube’s Black Voices Fund and The Mandela Foundation in a very special original series – The Mandela Project. It sees them each explore a subject close to their heart and Mandela’s, meeting people who are making real change happen in their communities. In one episode, the show follows Premier League legend and former Manchester United star Patrice Evra as he travels to east London to pay Hackney Wick FC and its founder, Bobby Kasanga, a visit. 

Bobby spent eight years in prison after failing to make it as a professional footballer. He was convicted of armed robbery at just 20 years old. While incarcerated, he was inspired to create a safe space to prevent other young men from making similar mistakes, using the tool he knew best. 

After getting out of prison, Bobby founded Hackney Wick FC, the first semi-pro club in the borough, with the aim of giving players who didn’t quite make it to the Premier League a second chance. “You see so many young players who are so talented, and you say – ‘woah, you are so good at football, why didn’t you make it?’ – and they say – ‘I didn’t know where to go, I didn’t have any options,’” says Bobby. “That’s what inspired me. I started a semi-professional football team to give young players that platform, and [so they wouldn’t] end up like me.”

“Mandela Day is an opportunity for people around the world to celebrate the activist and politician’s legacy by helping in their local communities”

Patrice, who was born in Senegal but grew up in Paris, is no stranger to the concept that football can provide an escape. In The Mandela Project, he shares that his childhood was “tough,” revealing that he even had to beg on the streets to make ends meet. So, the theme of this year’s Mandela Day – “do what you can, with what you have, wherever you are” – is particularly pertinent to Evra. Started in 2009, and celebrated every year on Nelson Mandela’s birthday, Mandela Day is an opportunity for people around the world to celebrate the activist and politician’s legacy by helping in their local communities. 

Historically, football has been one of the few clear and visible routes (alongside music) for Black men to become incredibly successful in the UK. Black talent has dominated the Premier League for decades, with players from socioeconomically deprived areas making it to the very top levels of the game. As systemic barriers block off many other avenues for Black men to progress and succeed, it is no wonder that so many boys cling to the hope of playing for a top club, and put their all into making it.

However, recent analysis of the Premier League’s own statistics by iNews revealed that 97% of players who come through academies never play a minute of top-flight football, and 70% are not even given a professional contract at a Premier League or English Football League club. That translates to thousands of young men who are turfed back out into the real world, after years of nothing but football, with limited options, little support and no guidance about what to do with the rest of their lives. 

It takes its toll, with released academy players reporting mental health issues – including trauma and suicidal thoughts – after failing to gain a professional contract. Research by ITV News in 2021 found that 72% of players felt they were not given enough support by the club that released them, and 90% reported depression or high levels of anxiety after being released. Freestyler Jeremy Lynch has experienced this pain first-hand. The former Arsenal hopeful appears alongside Evra in The Mandela Project, and the episode sees him inspire Hackney Wick FC’s players with his story of being cut from the academy programme, to finding success on YouTube and other social media platforms, and founding F2Freestylers.  

“They have found a space that allows them to visualise a different future for themselves”

Hackney Wick FC is a lifeline for many – it sees football as a way to create new and better lives for people, even if that doesn’t mean playing in front of thousands every week and earning millions. For Bobby and his squads, there are many different routes to success and fulfilment in life, but they all begin with someone who is willing to believe in you and the possibility of a second chance. It’s an ethos that has filtered down through the generations of the Mandela family too, as Ndaba Mandela shares in The Mandela Project: “My grandfather once said, ‘do not judge me by my successes, but judge me by the amount of times I fell down and got back up again’.”

In the episode, one thing that stood out to Patrice about the players at Hackney Wick FC, was their dedication, not only to football, but to each other and to their wider community. The first team captain balances night shifts and supporting his family, with training and games. All players at the club dedicate at least two hours every week to voluntary work in the local area. Teams also have to travel 40 miles for home games because the club doesn’t have their own stadium in Hackney. They do it because they love the game, but also because they have found a space that allows them to visualise a different future for themselves. A future brimming with possibilities. 

This Mandela Day, YouTube’s Black Voices Fund is honouring the late South African president and anti-apartheid activist with an original series celebrating Black creators, music and culture. ‘The Mandela Project’follows six famous faces as they head out into communities to meet people who are making a difference and keeping Mandela’s legacy alive. In one episode, former Manchester United player Patrice Evra visits Hackney Wick FC to hear about how the grassroots team is giving footballing talent a second chance. Watch the show in full at the top of the article or on YouTube here.