How Comfort made her peace with football
When Comfort Etim looks back at her extraordinary life she admits that football – the game she fell in love with as a child growing up in Nigeria – has been responsible for some of the brightest and darkest chapters.
Comfort lives in Liverpool and is the coach of a National Lottery-funded women’s team that includes refugees and asylum seekers. As a former asylum seeker herself, the 37-year-old offers her players empathy, support and advice as well as tips on handling the ball.
She said, “They [the players] are amazing and I’m privileged to know them. For them to be going through the things they’re going through and still want to play football is just extraordinary.”
Comfort seemed destined to be a footballer from an early age. Her mother, a former soldier in the Nigerian army, was the country’s first female football coach and took her daughter to countless matches and training sessions.
By the time Comfort was at secondary school she was earning some much needed cash playing in football competitions in Lagos. She said, “Despite all the things mum had achieved, we were still very poor. From an early age I saw football as an escape, a way to a better life.”
She left school at 15 and was signed by a Nigerian club a year later. She was in her late teens when a man claiming to be a football scout offered to fly her to America to play professional football and study at university.
Faced with a choice between a life of poverty in Nigeria and a good education and sporting success in America, Comfort and her mother agreed to the plan.
The scout gave her an air ticket to London and told her to be brave. He waved her off at the airport and she never saw him again. Even now, some 20 years after the event, she cannot understand his motives besides extracting some money from her mother.
In London Comfort was met by a woman who took her passport – she said she needed it to obtain a US visa – and took her to a flat on a London council estate.
She said, “I was abandoned in London and it was scary. I was told not to ask any questions and to do what I was told. I didn’t want to get my family into trouble so I did what they asked.”
After two months sleeping on the living room floor Comfort was told she had to leave. Destitute, without a passport and speaking little English, she was forced to beg for spare change under a bridge in Brixton in South London.
She said, “I was suicidal at times because my situation was shameful, a disgrace. People at home thought I was in America playing football, but I’d lost everything.”
She was rescued by a relative living in London after she managed to obtain his phone number and used her last 20p coin to call him from a phone box. He gave her a home and after a while she began playing football again.
In 2003, she attended a trial for Tottenham Hotspur’s women’s team and was selected. Comfort played several games for Spurs and decided to apply for asylum in the UK, a process that would take 7 years to complete.
In 2004, she became pregnant with her son, Ezekiel, and moved to Liverpool. For several years she kept her ability as a footballer a secret and tried to forget about the game. It had become a source of shame, she explained, because her Nigerian family couldn’t understand why she wasn’t in America making a success of her life.
Ezekiel was in Year 5 at school when he finally saw his mother’s ball skills. Comfort said, “He was playing football with his friends and I started juggling the ball on my foot. When I got to 30 they all shouted ‘Ezekiel, your mother can play football!”
Comfort saw her son was proud of her talent and her love of football was reignited.
After obtaining a Level 2 coaching certificate, she became determined to use football to help other women seeking asylum in the UK. She said, “I knew the struggle they were going through and I wanted to be able to support women - single mums in particular – by offering them a way to just relax and have some fun.”
She got her chance after being appointed as the outreach worker for Refugee Women Connect, a National Lottery-funded charity set up to support women asylum seekers, refugees and survivors of trafficking. When Comfort suggested setting up a football team she was given the go-ahead to run a 12-week pilot scheme.
She said, “We wanted to promote health, but also integration. The team isn’t just for asylum seekers, it’s for any women in the community. We have an amazing diversity of women and it brings a smile to my face.”
The team has had to suspend its twice-weekly training sessions due to the coronavirus, but the members are supporting each other via social media and phone calls.
Comfort is eager to resume training and her passion for football is stronger than ever. She said, “Football has always been in my heart. It’s the thing that makes me smile and gets me excited.”
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10th November 2020
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