A small group of Senegalese Muslims prays in the vicinity of the stadium. The sun is setting and Famara lays his head on a small rug on the asphalt. Four large spotlights illuminate the grass of the stadium of Roquetas de Mar. A blue grandstand stands to the west, only a few people occupy its sun-bleached seats covered in dust. In the locker room, twenty boys are getting dressed in green. Famara applauds in the tunnel as his players take the field. Famara is the chairman, coach and sometimes central defender of this team of young Senegalese. They speak in Wolof, their mother tongue, and represent Cuevas del Almanzora, the Andalusian town where they live. Tonight they face their countrymen from Roquetas, another town from the Southeast. Some, especially those who arrived recently, do not understand Spanish, despite working in Spain, most of them in the fields and its greenhouses.
Tonight's appointment is in another field, also made of plastic, the ubiquitous material of this province, which covers like a silver mantle an extension of forty thousand football fields. A unique human creation that can be seen from outer space. In the last moments of daylight, the sun disappears in a bright horizon of greenhouses which seems to engender a glow that illuminates this corner of Spain.
The match starts at a great pace. The players run fast and shoot in the air. For a moment, only Famara's orders can be heard, shouting from the sidelines. The intensity of the game increases in the last minutes. A header makes the score two to one for Famara’s team. The final whistle unleashes a contained joy, the rivals are friends, they also crossed the Mediterranean risking many things. The farewell summons a shared laughter, taking photographs as a memento. It is ten o'clock and there is no time for a shower. Every tap in the changing room is accompanied by a sign asking to save water. The Southeast of Spain is the driest region in Europe and it is home to the largest agro-industrial complex on the planet, where seven out of ten workers are migrants.
The players drive back to Cuevas del Almanzora, in the east of the province of Almeria. At sunrise, they wake up and go to work or school. In broad daylight, the region feels like a desert, a wasteland populated by wild palm trees. The last storms have ripped dozens of plastics from greenhouses and some got entangled in the branches of several trees. The green islands surround the outskirts and flood the crops of the cortijos. The hunting grounds extend through the olive groves that reach the foot of the Betic mountains, marked by the wind and the rain.
Cuevas del Almanzora owes its name to some ancient caves and the Almanzora river. Its people are humble and its climate is warm, even in winter. One out of three inhabitants was born abroad, mostly in Morocco or Senegal. Many African migrants live in the old town surrounding the church of the Encarnación, where there was once a mosque, demolished in the eighteenth century. The streets are narrow with old stately facades and cobblestone roads. Some houses are abandoned, practically in ruins. Stray cats invade the empty plots. One of the plots now houses a bush of oleanders.
In 2006, Famara risked his life crossing the strait between Morocco and Spain. He was barely twenty years old. "In a small boat and many hours". In total, it was a nine-day journey from Casamanza, in the south of Senegal. Famara looks back fondly on the brief time spent in Madrid, at his father-in-law's apartment, getting to know his wife better. He also remembers the working days in the fields of the meseta. "I couldn't stay long in Madrid because there is lot of surveillance." On June 13th, 2007, he moved to Cuevas del Almanzora, where it was easier to find a job as an undocumented migrant. Sixteen years later, Famara's life has changed deeply. Today he lives with his children, his wife and his little brother in a modern apartment with a private parking space where he parks his hybrid car. Prior to that, they were sharing a flat with his friend Bassir, in one of the blocks on the outskirts. Bassir is also his colleague, both work as gardeners around the Levante Almeriense, allowing them a standard of living that in Senegal is very difficult to reach.
"When I arrived in Cuevas, the Senegalese were already getting together to play". Famara remembers the boys organizing matches that summer of 2007. As time went by, they gathered resources: balls, socks, water bottles... and even a sponsorship with a local agricultural company that paid for their first kit. Their crest is the logo of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). A big phrase in Spanish can be read across the front of the jersey: Cultural and Social Sports Association of African Immigrants of Cuevas del Almanzora. Famara has been its president since its founding in 2019. "Although almost all of us are Senegalese, there are also people from Guinea, Gambia... that's why we printed the ECOWAS shield, which represents us all."
Famara’s team welcomes newcomers to Cuevas del Almanzora through football. There are about two hundred people registered in the association and every year they collect twenty euros per head. The money goes to help each other. "If someone has a problem, for instance, a health issue, we use the money to cure them", says Famara, about a project, his team, which is already more than a club.
Thirty Senegalese boys go down to the Almanzora. It is seven o'clock in the evening and the players have arranged to meet in the desert riverbed, totally dry due to the scarcity of rainfall and, according to the locals, also due to agriculture practices of recent times.
The players train many days a year, except for Mondays, rainy days and cold winter afternoons. The whole air of the Almanzora is masculine, with the exception of a couple of little girls, who play in the surroundings waiting for their relatives. In the province of Almeria, nine out of ten Senegalese are men and many are saving resources for their loved ones so they can arrive in Spain in better conditions.
"These goals were installed years ago, so instead of water there is football, the water never runs, only they run," says Francisco, a resident of Cuevas del Almanzora, who watches the players touching the ball while leaning on the river's fence. The dust swirls skyward and when the game intensifies, the boys disappear in a whirlwind of sand.
They are the other club from Cuevas, the players from the Almanzora river, those who imbue Famara's word with meaning. In the town’s official team, Cuevas C.F., there are no Senegalese players. Cuevas C.F. competes in the Almeria’s League, which is equivalent to the seventh level of competition in the Spanish Football League. "There are no Senegalese boys because they don't know them," explains Famara, who has been one of the few Senegalese who was able to federate. He even got to play for Cuevas C.F. back in 2017 for a few months, his last ball. "They needed a defender for the end of the season and they asked me," says Famara. However, he made his career as a center back at A.D. Los Gallardos, where he spent six seasons defending the jersey of the neighboring club. "I was the first black player in the club's history." In 2010 they won the league. It was Famara's first season as a football player in Spain. He also received the sportsmanship award of the season for a feat: he only saw one yellow card in the entire competition. "I ran more than anyone else.” Famara displays the trophy on a shelf in his living room. The weight of the metal holds a Senegal flag that hangs just above the television. Famara and his younger brother, Elhadji, are watching a match between FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. Both are Real Madrid fans, so they have bet on a draw, even though Barcelona is winning. "My life is football", admits Famara, who doesn't stick to the entertainment of the Spanish La Liga, but also follows the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga or the Italian Calcio. Famara gives a smile when asked about the secret of watching any European football match at home.
There are dozens of boys at Famara’s team, although many were born in the south of Senegal, work in the agroindustry of Almeria and share a passion for football. Ibrahima is their best goalkeeper. "He's a great goalie," says Famara. Aside from saving goals for his countrymen, he is also the starting goalkeeper for C.D. Mojacar, another neighboring club, which also plays in the Almeria's League.Ibrahima arrived in Cuevas back in 2018, before that spent some time in Italy. He speaks as many languages as an interpreter: Wolof, Mandenka, French, Italian and Spanish. He is 27 years old and shares an apartment with other Senegalese migrants in Cuevas. He crossed the Mediterranean seven years ago, from Tunisia to Sicily, a three hundred kilometer sea crossing.
Famara defends the backline for the veterans, who lead three-nil at halftime. Ibrahima stays in the same goal, he will play the second half with the juniors. "They begged me," says Ibrahima, the only player whose hands are sheathed by vocation. From the start of the second half, Ibrahima constantly shouts orders to his teammates. The young team seems inspired by Ibrahima’s confidence. He anticipates the attacks and uses both legs to get rid of the pressure. In set pieces, his fists rise above all, sending the ball to the sky of Cuevas. The young team’s desire does not culminate the comeback and the match ends three to two.
Famara had the same problem as Ibrahima, he could not get to the stadium of Los Gallardos on his own back when he was a federated player. "The board of directors took me to training sessions and matches". Famara expresses a warm sentiment for the chairman, Paco Picante, "a football man, a good person.” Famara’s life changed when he met Picante. "We were at a construction site in Mojacar," Picante recalls. "I was the carpenter foreman and I saw Famara through a window, digging a hole for a swimming pool all by himself. I was very impressed by his attitude. We started talking about football and a few days later he was already training with us". Picante believes that clubs in the province are hesitant to get involved with migrants, who are often very young people, even teenagers, pushed into the common denominator of loneliness and the fields. "The clubs in the area are not interested in dealing with the migrants' situation, usually because they are undocumented. We Spaniards have a migration past, we should be more humanitarian," expresses Picante, who recognizes that signing Famara also changed the club's history. "He was our first black player. The very first of many."
The next goal of Famara’s team will be a summer tournament, in which they will face other unofficial teams in the region. "We'll play against other Africans, Latin Americans, laborers... If we win, we'll throw a party, and if we don't win, so will we," says Famara, who has made several players laugh. The team trains by finishing off crosses in the imaginary area of the Almanzora, where sporting excellence is achieved in a different way.Over the decades, living in the Southeast has become a lesser evil for thousands of migrants. Their lives leave stories of resilience like those of Famara and his team, who have turned the Almanzora into a place where the lives of many people make sense. The voices in Wolof, the children swarming around and the great dry riverbed, resounding with the shouts of several generations chasing a ball.