Greece’s national youth team coach and former leading goal keeper Antonis Nikopolidis is helping refugees in Greece to feel a sense of hope and happiness, by building a soccer team named Elpida (hope), which is made up of players who have fled war zone areas, including Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Soccer fans may remember Nikopolidis, who has been said to resemble American actor George Clooney as the goalkeeper who helped Greece become European Champions in 2004.
Most of Elpida’s players live in Skaramangas, an industrial zone west of Athens where metal containers have been turned into small homes. They compete in an amateur league on Sundays, facing teams made up of lawyers, telecom workers and accountants.
Nikopolidis says team practices and matches provide a welcome distraction for young men facing uncertain futures in the European Union’s slow-moving relocation program.
“We’re helping people who are at a difficult moment in their lives and we are trying with this team to give them a few hours of happiness,” he says.
The Union of European Football Associations, the governing body for soccer in Europe, has awarded grants to assist refugees in 15 countries. Some of the money that went to Greece is being used to sponsor Nikopolidis’ team, together with a Greek charity called Organization Earth.
“It’s a joy for me to do this,” Nikopolidis said. “The main thing is that they enjoy it and they have fun. We have created a group of friends, with bonds of friendship, like a family,” he added.