- Hackney Wick FC tackling gang violence in London
- Volunteering and community outreach key to the fabric of the club
- Founder Bobby Kasanga guiding young people after falling victim to draw of crime
Exactly five years ago, a dream in East London was just rubbing the sleep from its eyes as it began to become a reality. No-one was to know these first steps were going to transform the life of the man behind it – and many others too.
2015 was a time for change for Bobby Kasanga. Having just spent eight years of his life in prison, he was determined to be a vehicle for positivity now that he had his freedom again. Football was the engine he chose, founding Hackney Wick FC. The journey since has been one he never expected.
“When I was in prison, I missed football terribly,” he explained to FIFA.com. “I also realised while I was inside that only those on good behaviour would be allowed to play football. So even the most gangster, bad man of people would try to calm themselves down on a Friday when football was on. It showed me football is such a powerful tool.”
Having obtained a degree during his prison time, Kasanga set out to prevent young people growing up in London getting tangled in the types of gang crime that had curtailed his own promising football talent. His passion to lift up the borough in the process has earned the team widespread recognition - as well as the odd bit of viral fame.
“When I came out I was always ambitious, I had an entrepreneurial mindset and I always thought I’d make a success of my life, but I didn’t realise it’d happen so soon,” he said.
“It’s still surreal. I was in prison five years ago, but I got invited to Downing Street [the Prime Minister’s residence] last year, the Mayor of London came to visit us as well. These are things you don’t even dream of.”
Building a community
In the space of two years they had become Hackney’s first semi-pro side for over a century – despite the borough being seen as “the home of grassroots football” thanks to the world famous Hackney Marshes. But one of the keys to his and the club’s success is the requirement to give something back.
“Every adult member of the club has to subscribe to doing two hours of volunteering a month for different causes. So just having that responsibility in taking care of their community gives them that reassurance that they’re doing something worthwhile and is also building their skills and confidence. I feel it’s very important to give them an outlet that’s not just about football but is about life skills, too.”
So, with that sense of identity, the club and its members have started to build a movement. Their Grassroots For Good network aims to spread that spirit throughout the semi-pro and amateur game. They also use music and drama to attract that positive connection beyond football, while look to provide a leg up towards source opportunities for work experience and employment, too.
The sense of belonging has helped countless people avoid the pitfall that Kasanga fell into at 21. “It’s a common story, where someone’s a brilliant footballer but then gets caught up in another life. I was one of those guys that people used to talk about and said I’d go far. The influence of the gangs led me astray.”
Triggered by the murder of a friend, the now 33-year-old was sucked into a world of violence, eventually leading to his arrest for armed robbery. Knowing the risks and draws of this world intimately has meant he can address the issues with knowledge and respect, allowing him to broaden the horizons of those he’s guiding.
“Because of the whole postcode wars, some of them were too afraid to go leave the area,” he said. “We were losing out on a whole generation of talented kids.”
A London World Cup
It was a reality that led to the creation of the 32 Boroughs Cup. “It was one of the greatest achievements of my life,” Kasanga proudly said.
Inviting teams to represent each of London’s boroughs, simulating a World Cup – “why had no one ever thought of it?” – it looked to remove the fear factor that territory gang rivalry fostered.
He was told it would be a “blood bath”.
It was nothing of the sort.
“Kids from every single borough in London came and represented and it was all good vibes,” he said of the 600-plus participants – less some standard on-pitch ‘handbags’. “It was absolutely brilliant, and we want to make it even bigger this year.”
The search for a home
Though making all this happen isn’t easy. “It’s a whirlwind and basically full-time,” the multiple award-winner admitted. Particularly now that they face becoming homeless at the end of the season.
After having had to already move once this campaign, they now face a desperate search for a new ground, potentially having to even leave London and cut ties with Hackney – which stands as the only borough in the city without its own stadium.
Their status has seen plenty look to see how they can help but options are limited. With their first cup semi-final on 18 March, Kasanga hopes to prove that Hackney is the only place they should be.
“We're trying to showcase why Hackney needs a stadium by inviting everyone to our semi-final so we can show Hackney council. We’re putting in so much effort and so many people want to see it. It’ll be a long battle but we’re up for the fight.”
While they’ve already had so much impact on home soil, the future may see Kasanga and his team of dedicated individuals on and off the pitch shape their community even further.