Koeppe and Lukaku on the same side for the rise of Germany’s refugee team

Coach Ella Masar tells 'The National' that Panthers Veltheim’s mainly African squad is overcoming divisions over refugees in Germany

On a bitterly cold Friday night in rural Germany a biting wind that threatens to push temperatures below freezing is braved by about 15 men all from sub-Saharan Africa, who are put through their paces ahead of their football season restarting after a winter break.

Head coach Ella Masar, a recently retired professional footballer who played for the women’s US national team, Paris Saint-Germain and nearby Wolfsburg, barks out instructions to her side as she explains her drills in multiple languages.

Panthers Veltheim, based in Lower Saxony, sit second in their league mid-way through the season in Germany’s 9th rung of competition but the players, coaches and organisers say their focus is on propelling the side up the divisional tables.

Yet what sets the team apart from their competitors is that all of its players are refugees or have applied for asylum in Germany.

Since its inception in 2015, as over a million migrants flooded into Germany, Panthers Veltheim has gained promotion and attracted support from nearby professional side VFL Wolfsburg.

The team was set up by Steffen Koeppe, who works in local government, and his friend Christian Muller, who were tasked with responding to a “refugee wave” that at times overwhelmed the German system and, in part, fuelled a rise in far-right politics.

Mr Koeppe, who occasionally played for the Panthers when numbers were short in its earlier years, said during the initial migrant influx there were issues with housing and tensions amid a clash of religions, nationalities and cultures.

"It was situation for all of them it was not very nice because they didn't know 'ok what happens now to me. Should I have to go back to my country?'" Mr Koeppe told The National as the Panthers trained.

“After a while I thought, ‘no, this can’t go on like this.’ So I asked them ‘tell me guys, what would you really like to do?’ and all of them said to me ‘we love football.”

What began as informal training sessions quickly turned into friendly matches being organised as more players joined. Around four years ago, Panthers Veltheim officially joined the lowest league in the German Football Association and since then has steadily gained strength.

Among the first to join was Eric Lukaku, 33, who left his home city of Harare, Zimbabwe around a decade again and has been in Germany for five years.

He fled Zimbabwe after he got “into a little political situation as a member of the student union,” at a time when long-time authoritarian leader Robert Mugabe still ran the country with an iron fist.

“I got some threats and feared for my life,” he said. Moving first to Ethiopia, he travelled through the desert to Libya where he worked in Tripoli for over a year in construction but he was forced to leave the country as the 2011 civil war raged. Escaping over the Mediterranean Sea to Italy, where he lived for two years, he then came to Germany where he has since found work on a fixed contract.

“It hasn’t been easy, but we are still fighting with the help of the people help us around. We are still coping with life here,” he said.

“The team really, really changed everything. It changed our story, it changed our condition. It made people understand us much.

“Because, before, when we were sitting in our homes not doing anything, the people did not know how good we can interact with people or how good we can integrate in the community at that time. But when we started the team the people came out to watch us, how disciplined we are on the field,” Mr Lukaku added.

A recent edition to the side has been 24-year-old Clarence Carter, from Liberia, who played professionally in India for four seasons and has plans to move up the leagues.

During a break in his home city of Monrovia, he says he had to flee after his brother tried to make him ill with a curse.

Mr Carter, like all of those spoken to, who typically came to Europe alone, compared the Panthers to a second family.

"Steffan is like a father for everyone here and when you face some problems you can call him. We don’t know anyone, all the guys here don’t know anyone so when they are going through difficulties they call Steffen. It’s like a family,” said Mr Carter.

Crucial to the success of the Panthers has been the work of volunteers, some of whom drive the players, to practice. Many of the players live well over 50 kilometres away and migrants who drive in their early years is a somewhat rarity.

For instance, Syrian Ramadan Al Othman, who plays occasionally for the side but acted as a driver on Friday, was congratulated for having just bought a car.

Ms Masar, the head coach and former women’s professional footballer, started getting involved when playing for nearby professional team VFL Wolfsburg.

A lot of the kit such as footballs has been given to the Panthers by Wolfsburg with their training bibs from the women’s European Champions League.

“These men they come from different countries, they come to somewhere where it’s very hard to immigrate into society. Now they come here and regardless of their week or what they’ve been going through now Tuesday, Friday nights and Sunday they have somebody that can relate to them,” she said.

“For that’s most important and why I love football because you can go anywhere in the world, don’t speak the language, don’t come from the same background and then, you know, you have to find a way to come together as a team.

"For me they think I came and helped them and saved them but for me these guys saved me and my perception of Germany.”

Fears persist over the long-term situation for players in the team. Some have been deported to their home countries while others face an uphill battle to get asylum.

But nonetheless, the team is upbeat and focused on doing as well as possible.

“The team changed our life. We found out we are one people with one goal. We became friends, we call each other, we visit each other and let us say that, yes, it is a new family now,” Mr Lukaku said.