Playing For A Cause: Hackney Wick FC
As part of Nike’s campaign to launch the new Premier League Merlin ball, we collaborated with five teams who represent the different pillars of London’s grassroots football culture. To embody the spirit that The Ball Means More, we explored the real power of women’s football across the city via the incredible initiatives that will inspire the next generation of ballers. With a commitment to transforming lives, the ones changing the game might just be the ones who change the world.
Football is at risk of losing youth in the city. The game is facing a continued battle against prevailing societal issues, rising costs and young people in London are continuing to struggle with a lack of space and a place to play the game they love. But, it’s more than just a game to the youth in London; it offers refuge, mentorship and a future. It’s something that Bobby Kasanga knows all too well.
In between spells in prison, Bobby played for a number of non-league clubs from Ashford to Fisher Athletic, and during his time in the semi-pro game, he noticed that in his home – the borough of Hackney – there was not a single club that played above the seventh tier. So, once he left prison he had a new goal to work towards; build a football club.
In January 2015, Bobby established Hackney Wick FC. Within the space of just four seasons and thanks to Bobby’s undying hunger, desire and enthusiasm, the first team are playing competitively in the Middlesex Senior League, the ‘Wickers’ also have a successful women’s team and now over 300 junior members play in the iconic Hackney Wick strip. Last season, the team played in the FA Cup for the very first time too. But there’s a lot more to it.
This is a club that was set up to challenge the supremacy of crime and to give a substantial and attainable alternative to gang culture. By becoming the beating heart of the community, the club aims to mend the dislocation between the youth and community by giving them a positive example and a road to a brighter future. In order to become a member of the team, everyone who joins the club has to guarantee to do a minimum of two hours a month of voluntary work in Hackney. It’s a small token that has made a monumental impact.
To unravel the many different layers of Hackney Wick FC and to find out how the club continues to break boundaries and strip away stigmas, we joined up with the whole squad – and founder Bobby Kasanga – to find out how the power of football continues to give local kids an opportunity to stay out of trouble.
How would you describe the grass roots football scene across the capital?
As much as we all love and watch the Premier League grass roots football offers something different. When watching grassroots football people see their friends, their neighbours, their teachers, the local mechanic, their landlord; so it resonates on another level. Also, people have access to these players lives in a way that is not possible with professional players. YouTube and social media has been massive to the impact and growth as they don’t need big networks promote themselves. With one click they can upload their own foot gate with fun challenges that engages the everyday fan.
Where do you view Hackney Wick FC’s role in breaking down barriers and eliminating stigmas attached to the youth of today in London?
We say #THINKOUTSIDETHEBLOX. So instead of highlighting all the negativity in the media around youth violence we challenge the youths to showcase their ambition by thinking outside the Blox. We ask them what they want to be if they can’t be a footballer and whatever answer they give them we work to get them into those careers.
How do you ensure that Hackney Wick FC is always one step ahead of the other pressures and other distractions that people growing up in the city may be faced with?
We know that youths would play football everyday if the capacity was there for them. However, with budgets and funding low we are almost forced to create new initiatives that keep the youths engaged. But it’s not just youths, it’s also the homeless, prison inmates, mental health patients, those with disabilities, the elderly and the marginalised. So, by creating opportunities that provides a service for all members of society it allows us to say relevant in all departments. This is something that no other club is doing.
What is the greatest thing you’ve learned on the journey of Hackney Wick FC?
Very simple for me. Hard work and commitment has taught me anything is possible.
What makes football such an important that helps transform squandered opportunity, wasted potential and petty crime into a more fruitful life for people?
It’s the national sport. Youths dream of playing professionally from the moment they can kick a ball and this stays with them until adulthood. I am a perfect example of someone who squandered his opportunity and wasted potential. In regard to grassroots football, it’s as if you are now pressing the reset button. Football is helping me now transform the lives of those who could have potentially been heading in my direction. Showing them that petty crime can lead to more serious situations and life sentences.
Beyond the pitch, what impact does Hackney Wick FC continue to have on the community?
We have got about 20 people into full time employment and that impact also affects their families and friends. We have provided opportunities for players to volunteer abroad and live out new experiences they would never have thought of. This takes our impact even further and not just local but international. The countless awards we’ve won demonstrates that our impact is being recognised.
Everyone who joins the club has to do a minimum amount of community work; tell us about that concept and the positive influence that is having on the world beyond the pitch?
We felt is was really important to gain the trust and support of our community so we had to do something for them in return. What better thing to give them than to give them our time? We have volunteered with many organisations and this is what has really pushed the recognition we receive.
Without football, how different would you and the entire team’s lives actually be?
I now do this full time so I don’t even like to think about it. I’ve worked so hard to get a point where I can do something I love for a living. So for me it’s never like work. Without it I can’t really contemplate it. We have over 200 members. What and where would they all be right now if the club wasn’t here. We not only provide football but mentors who advice and give guidance on life skills and more. Work opportunities, career advice, fitness and an extended family.
Anyone can build a football team, but how hard is it to form a football team that has a powerful and positive influence on and off the pitch?
You need to have a purpose. A reason. Why do you do it? Who is it helping? What are the benefits? What are the outcomes? Why is it important? That’s the difference between just a football team and one that has a powerful and positive influence both on and off the field.
What emotions do you have when you pull on that Hackney Wick shirt every week?
I am still in awe of the kits. Like I created a club which has collaborated with the biggest sports brand in the world. It’s so recognisable. Everywhere I go people say you’re the HWFC guy. I love your work. I love the shirts. That always means a lot. I am the self proclaimed Peckham Zidane so when I put the shirt on I must always make sure I live up to the name.
Pick up the Nike 2019/20 Premier League Merlin ball at Nike.com.