In 2015 and 2016, Europe received more than one million refugees — a record number. This fact has obviously been at the centre of debate — a debate sometimes peppered with half-truths which have served to provoke fear of foreigners and have prompted the rise of xenophobic parties on the continent.

“The New Arrivals” project explores the realities of immigrants. El País — a newspaper born in Spain more than four decades ago, just when the country began its transition to democracy — created this project in partnership with The Guardian (UK), Der Spiegel (Germany), and Le Monde (France). Each publication followed a group of recent arrivals, chronicling the obstacles they faced over a year and a half. The goal of the project was to immerse ourselves in one of the most important phenomena of our time.

At El País, we wanted to follow a group of immigrants who had arrived in Spain from Africa, crossing what is considered the “most unequal border in Europe.” However, those who arrive on the coasts of Andalusia in rickety boats or jump over the border fence in Melilla (a Spanish enclave in Morocco) or hide underneath trucks to get across the border don’t usually come here with their families, nor in groups. They are usually young men. Some travel with friends or neighbours, but they usually end up dispersing. Each of them heads off to wherever they think there is an opportunity. They often keep in contact via Facebook, despite being separated by many kilometres of distance.

Members of the Alma de África football team who arrived in Spain as undocumented immigrants allowed El País to follow their journeys.
Members of the Alma de África football team who arrived in Spain as undocumented immigrants allowed El País to follow their journeys.

For our project, we needed to find a group and keep them united. It was a colleague in the newsroom, one of the many I consulted, who said the magic word: “Football. Why don’t you find a football team?”

Bingo! That could work.

Football is Spain, La Liga, Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo … and football is the hook that made it possible to immerse ourselves in information, data, context, and new formats to contribute to the debate about migration.

We began the search for a football team that would participate. It didn’t take long to find Alma de África, an amateur football team from Jerez de la Frontera that plays in the third division in Andalusia. What differentiates this team from its rivals is that some of the players are undocumented immigrants. They are federated like the rest, but living in the shadows.

The 11 main players, the substitutes, and those that train with them became the guiding thread of The New Arrivals series. Through their stories, we told our readers about the long, bureaucratic, and exasperating process of regularisation. We shared the experience of Moroccan Hicham Aidami, who now cannot train nor play official games because he has found a job as a cook.

We also invented an interactive game to put our audience in the shoes of a recently arrived immigrant. Malick Doumbouya from Conakry, Guinea, lent his face and words to tell what happens when immigrants like him, who arrive as minors, lose guardianship of the Spanish state when they turn 18.

Any fan knows that a team keeps its identity, even if its players change. That gave us a guarantee of continuity, which was essential for a long-term storytelling project of this nature. What’s more, any fan (or reader) understands that teams gain and lose players through signings and transfers to other teams. Like the immigrants, the footballers go wherever they think they have the best opportunities.

Hicham, Malick, the Moroccans Hamza and Abdul, the Senegalese Modu and Mahu, the Cameroonians Issa and Yves, the Bolivian Amed … all the players from Alma de África would have wanted to earn a living scoring goals in Europe, just like their idols. None of them have managed it, but football has still brought them together as a community, in spite of their disparate origins. And it has given them roots in a country where they arrived in search of el dorado (wealth and opportunity).

They embody a phenomenon that has transformed Spain and Europe. And through their stories, we were able to reveal the human reality of migration policy as it has evolved in recent years, especially from the start of the European migrant crisis in 2015.