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Migrants on the island of Lesbos find refuge on soccer field

LESBOS, Greece (AP) — A 10-minute walk from Europe's largest refugee camp, across olive groves and open land scattered with thorns and wildflowers, sits a nondescript yet remarkable soccer field. It's a place where residents of the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos can briefly forget about their tiny container-homes and crowded tents and instead worry about corner kicks and throw-ins.

One of the latest big games on the well-kept grass was the highly anticipated match between a group of Afghan migrants and the African asylum seekers who dominate the camp's soccer team, Cosmos FC. Many of the players hope to turn professional and leave the camp, where they are forced to remain indefinitely under European Union rules designed to limit the number of migrants and refugees reaching the mainland.

But their quest to escape camp life got a little easier when 15-year-old Francis Kalombo became the first refugee to sign for a professional Greek soccer club. Kalombo's talent inspired the government in Athens to change sporting laws in March that grant stateless refugees and other asylum seekers the right to participate in competitive sports.

Kalombo, slightly built and with short braids twisted into a crown, has become something of a celebrity on the island since joining Aiolikos, a third-division team ambitiously named after Aeolus, master of the wind in ancient Greek mythology.

"It felt like a miracle ... I didn't realize they had to change (the law) for me to play," Kalombo said after a training session at his new club, which is based on Lesbos. "There is always a lot of pressure because you are the first refugee to play in an official Greek team, the best team on this island. So it feels good. It feels very good."

In that recent big match near the camp, Kalombo stood in as coach for the African team, and then came on to score as a late substitute. The fiercely fought game ended in a 2-2 draw with the Afghan players throwing their goalkeeper into the air to celebrate the surprising result.

Kalombo was born in Congo and his family's effort to reach Europe lasted more than a decade, moving to South Africa and then on to Malaysia, Thailand and Turkey. Along the way, he picked up local languages and soccer skills, and is now enrolled in a Greek school.

More than a million refugees, many escaping war in Syria and Iraq, fled to Europe in 2015 and 2016, and the illegal passage from Turkey to the beaches of northern Lesbos became the busiest crossing point during the crisis. Kalombo traveled with his father, a doctor, and his younger brother in 2017 on a boat run by traffickers.

About 7,000 asylum seekers are currently on Lesbos, one of five Greek islands near the Turkish coast where the movement of refugees and migrants has been legally restricted for the past three years. Most live at the sprawling hillside camp at Moria in container-homes or in tents in an informal spill-over camp outside the perimeter.

Since signing Kalombo, Aiolikos has also brought in two 19-year-old asylum seekers from Guinea to join training sessions and help the club cope with injuries. Cosmos was founded three years ago by Giorgos Patlakas, a former Greece under-20 national team goalkeeper and local businessman who retired in his early 50s because of the strain of cancer treatment.

"These guys train six hours a week and it's the only time they can find some kind of release from their difficult daily lives. But the team feels like treatment for me, too," Patlakas said. Standouts at Cosmos had nowhere else to play, and through acquaintances, Patlakas brought the issue to the attention of local lawmakers, who eventually helped push the legal changes through parliament.

"The events conspired in our favor. For us and for me personally, it's a vindication," Patlakas said, adding that he welcomed the attention brought by Kalombo. "It's becoming increasingly difficult to cover our costs. Hundreds of players have come through here, but every month we worry if we'll be able to provide the basics, to pay rent for the soccer field. We only have four balls left for practice and there are a hundred people who show up wanting to play. I need help."

Kalombo, who speaks English, French, Turkish and four African languages, helps Patlakas with coaching and translation, and hopes to become a regular starter at his new club, which narrowly missed promotion to Greece's second division this season.

He's unsure about what country he would like to represent internationally — his favorites are South Africa and Greece — but there's no doubt about his dream club, Champions League finalist Liverpool. Kalombo was born a year before Liverpool's last major international triumph, when the team overturned a 3-0 halftime deficit to beat AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul. Watching games and highlights on the internet, he picked members of that generation of players as his role models.

"I liked Fernando Torres. He's one of my favorite players. And I like the style that he played, him and Steven Gerrard," Kalombo said. "The 2005 Champions League final, it was a miracle, and I like Liverpool because of that. They don't give up."

Follow Gatopoulos at http://www.twitter.com/dgatopoulos and Stavrakis at https://twitter.com/tstavrak

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