“Small club, big dream” might be one of the most commonly used football expressions, but for this team of Rohingya refugees, it is certainly the case..

The time is 7pm. As the sun sets behind a row of flats in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, the referee of a football match nearby the buildings blows the final whistle. The game, far from being an English Premier League match watched by millions of spectators or a titanic Malaysian Super League clash between local football giants, finishes 3-0 courtesy of two penalties and one fine strike. The victors of the day, Soljabiru FC who will be turning semi-pro and joining Selangor’s state league for the upcoming 2017 season, celebrate jubilantly for emerging victorious, while the losing team walks off the pitch in a solemn and dejected mood.

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As nobody is ever happy with a defeat, passers-by will think it is normal for the lack of enthusiasm from the latter team, whose players are dressed in slightly faded pink shirts and uncoordinated colours of shorts and socks. However, the tired and worn faces of the losing side are actually telling another story. To the uninitiated, the final whistle means the end of their brief escape from their troubled lives, daily struggles, and the plight of their people in their homeland. They are the players of Rohingya FC, which, as the name suggests, are founded by – and for – the Rohingya people, one of the most persecuted ethnicities in the world according to the United Nations.

“[For 90 minutes] you are just a footballer. You forget about being a refugee, you forget about the troubles your people face here and in Myanmar, everything,” says Farouk Yousuf, the club’s leading goalscorer. He is by no means exaggerating, as the perils faced by the Rohingyas are well-documented. Marginalised, discriminated and denied basics rights in Myanmar, many have fled the country by hook or by crook in hope for a better tomorrow. Some of the Rohingya asylum seekers have made their way to Malaysia, but it has not exactly been a bed of flowers for them. Some are not registered under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and with no legal right to work or education, they need to work illegally and have struggled to make ends meet. The same problems are faced by Malaysian-born Rohingyas such as Farouk too.

“I have a birth certificate, but I don’t have a Malaysian citizenship,” he says. “I have tried to apply for it numerous times, but the immigration department has always rejected me, saying that one of my parents must be a citizen of Malaysia. So, I’m unwanted in both my country of ancestry and my country of birth. I’m still surviving and still living my life, but it has been tough and challenging.”

With many of their compatriots finding themselves stuck in a precarious limbo, a group of Rohingyas has banded together to form Rohingya FC as a means to change all that. “The Rohingyas have been in Malaysia for quite some time and we all love football, so there have been a lot of small teams formed by our people around the country,” says Muhammad Noor, one of the club’s co-founders. “One day, we came up with the idea of forming a football club and unite all these teams [under one banner], making it like a national team to represent the Rohingya people.

“The main objective of the club is not only to play football but also to take advantage of the positive impacts of sports. We want to keep our people in line and prevent them from doing crime and drugs. We also want to change the perception on us – we sadly have a rather unwanted reputation of being beggars – and enhance our image. We want to highlight that the Rohingya community has talented people who are dancers, singers, writers and, in this case, footballers.

“Furthermore, our people get resettled all the time due to our refugee status, which is why we want to train and expose them so that they can play for other football teams if they do move to other countries.”

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Thanks to the Malaysian government’s lenient stance towards the Rohingyas, the club came into existence in January 2015. Now, almost two years since the club were founded, Rohingya FC have a good mix of players between the ages of 22 and 31. As you would expect, the players are not professional footballers and most of them work as labourers, but that has not deterred everyone associated to the club including Dilder Ahmad, the head coach of Rohingya FC, who is immensely proud of his players.

“We are mostly workers and not well trained,” the 51-year-old coach says. “We go to work in the morning and train or play in the evening. It is not easy [with our work commitments], but all of us try our best to make it to every training session or match because we are very passionate about football and want to show that the Rohingyas are good at it.”

And rather unexpectedly, despite their name and club identity, Rohingya FC are far from being an exclusive group – in the vein of Athletic Bilbao’s Basque-only approach or Guadalajara’s all-Mexican policy – due to the inclusion of a Nigerian Christian among their ranks. Steven Ndubuisi, who is currently studying at a local college, has been playing for them since stumbling upon one of their training sessions. “I was jogging around my neighbourhood when I saw them training,” the 25-year-old recalls. “As I found them very interesting and thought it would be fun to mix up my workout routine a little, I asked if I could join them. They were happy to include me and we had fun training together. One thing led to another and I ended up playing for them and even helping out as their fitness coach!

“They have accepted and respected me despite our differences and language barrier. They also always value my input regarding tactics and training, so I feel appreciated. They are like a family to me.”

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Although Dilder admits it might look strange to outsiders, he does not have any issue with including Ndubuisi in his team. “We know how it feels like to be segregated and discriminated, so we do not want to do the same to others. If any non-Rohingyas want to play for us, we will welcome them with open arms because in the end, what matters is they represent the club and what it stands for,” he says. Farouk feels the same way and summarises it best: “[This is going to sound like a cliché but] it is more than just a club. Rohingya FC represent humanity and hope to me.”

Rohingya FC were relatively unknown in their first year, mostly travelling around Malaysia – when time permitted – to play against fellow Rohingya teams in other states as well as amateur and semipro local sides. It did not take them long to get noticed, as words were soon spread about them. In early 2016, they competed in a four-team tournament with Tenaga Nasional, Astro Awani and the Utusan Group. Shortly after that, they joined the DD Social League, a recreational league based in the Klang Valley – today’s game between Soljabiru FC and Rohingya FC is actually part of the league.

“I helped them referee a football tournament early last year,” DD Social League organiser Norsazli Zalaluddin recalls in a brief interview. “After seeing how good they were, I invited them to join the social league. And it was not just for a footballing reason. I knew the Rohingya people were not well-accepted in some parts of the world, so I wanted to make them feel welcome in Malaysia and prove that we can unite through football. They were thrilled to join the league and so were all the participating clubs, who thought they would make an interesting addition.”

His comment is echoed by Soljabiru head coach Latifi Bakhra, as he says right after the game: “At the beginning of the season, the organiser informed us about them and, naturally, we were very excited to face them. I think it is a good initiative by the organiser to bring them into the league to socialise and have some activities here.”

Aside from the local scene, they have also received support on the international front, thanks in large part to The Kick Project, a nongovernmental organisation (NGO) that helps refugee communities around the world through football. “After we formed the club, they noticed us and offered to help by providing us with proper kits, football boots and some funds,” Muhammad says. “James Rose [director of The Kick Project] also communicated with many NGOs and FIFA-related bodies as well as the Australian media to help put a spotlight on us. The club eventually got noticed by the United Nations as well and received some help from them.”

Dilder appreciates the public support and funds generated for the club as he admits they have been struggling financially. “We spend a minimum of RM1500 every month,” he reveals. “We spend the money on renting football pitches, preparing refreshments and covering the players’ travel expenses as much as possible – we don’t have a team bus, so all of us travel to games on our own. I am disappointed that I cannot provide everything to my players because they have always given their best for the club.”

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However, despite the hardships they have faced in life and football, they have not let it get the better of them. In fact, they are harbouring the dream of becoming a full-fledged team with a professional set-up in the future. While Dilder hopes his team will get to join the M-League and play against the likes of Johor Darul Ta’zim and PDRM someday, Muhammad is aiming for a grander stage.

“The Refugee Olympic Team that competed at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil has given me hope that we can dream big too,” he says. “At this point of time, we are still not very well trained, funded and organised, so we want to get proper tools and management to get the football club truly up and running. I want to see us play against international clubs like Manchester United and Chelsea.”

Muhammad also does not rule out of the possibility of Rohingya FC competing in non-FIFA competitions such as the VIVA World Cup or the ConIFA World Football Cup, which are competed by minorities, stateless people and regions unaffiliated with FIFA, if an opportunity arises. He believes that “it will be a good opportunity to take us somewhere and let us achieve something.”

Watch out, football world, the Rohingyas will be coming for you.

This article was first published in the January 2017 edition of FourFourTwo Malaysia/Singapore