Hungary’s amateur African all-stars battle prejudice

Budapest (AFP) – The bongo drum means only one thing in Hungarian football: Internationale CDF, a team mostly of African immigrants ripping up the amateur leagues and challenging prejudices, are on the pitch.

“We go win forever! We love Jesus!” roars the dreadlocked Theophilus, 38, the team’s self-appointed spiritual healer and djembe drummer, during a recent away match in the industrial town of Tiszaujvaros.

Nelson Victor, 34, who found himself stranded in Hungary — which is taking part in Euro 2016, its first major tournament in three decades — after his club went bankrupt in 2001, created Inter in 2006.

“We are a special team,” the Nigerian ex-player told AFP in his hair salon in Budapest’s ramshackle eighth district, home to many immigrants and Hungarian Roma. “Opponents hate losing to us.”

Originally it was called Afrique Inter FC and was to help Africans struggling to get a game with Hungarian clubs. But Victor changed the name in 2009 when he realised other foreigners had problems too.

The current first team, predominantly Nigerians and Cameroonians, also contains a Bulgarian and a Slovakian. In the squad there are even a handful of Hungarians.

And coached by John Moses, a Liberian who says he played with George Weah, one of Africa’s best ever players, Inter are going places.

It was promoted last season to the top amateur Budapest division after a 30-game winning streak. 

One more promotion and they join the professional ranks of Hungary’s third division, another step towards the club’s ambition: qualifying for European competition and taking on the continent’s big names.

“Maybe one day we can play against Real, Barca, PSG, this is our dream, impossibility has no place with us,” laughs Victor.

“I have to work hard to keep my place and stay in the team,” the winger, Tibor Zambo, a Hungarian Roma, told AFP at a training session.

– Out of trouble –

The club and its 300 members is not just about football. Sourcing jobs and accommodation for players is a key off-pitch function for Inter. Many players past and present work in Victor’s salon.

It also runs a homeless shelter, used by players and others in times of need, and organises sessions for disadvantaged children, mostly from Hungary’s deprived Roma minority.

Although helped by donations from local businesses, the cash-strapped club has no stadium of its own and has to rent a ground for home games. 

But it still manages to run junior teams from under-sevens to under-17s, providing boots for those who need them. 

“Lots of kids here want to play football but their parents can’t afford it,” said Victor. “It also helps keep them out of trouble.”

But they have their work cut out battling against prejudice in a country where the prime minister, Viktor Orban, says the country doesn’t want any more immigrants.

Last year the government erected billboards warning foreigners not to take jobs from Hungarians, and hostility to non-whites has grown during Europe’s migration crisis.

Hungary is home to around 5,000 Africans, a tiny percentage of the foreign-born population of just 150,000, itself mostly Europeans and 1.5 percent of the 10-million-strong country.

Despite over 60,000 Facebook likes — most from Africa — Inter have few fans in Hungary. And the club feels that referees are overly tough on the players.

“You see that when the black man falls, no foul, only when the white man falls,” grumbled Theophilus during the recent match.

Nelson Victor, though, doesn’t let any hostility get to him.

“Many Hungarians are kind and welcoming, but just as in every other country, you also find people hostile to anything non-national,” he said.

And some locals, although bemused by Inter’s strong religious ethic, complete with prayer huddles before games, are being won over.

“They are a special team indeed, I think they are good for Hungarian football,” said Jozsef Toth, an opposition fan in Tiszaujvaros.

“My prayer is to get people to unite in football, we are all foreigners but we can help this country,” says Theophilus.

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