Thinking Outside the Penalty Box: Poetry inspired by African footballers in Britain (2018)

18 Penalty Box_infoyle05.qxdThis anthology is the culmination of a pilot project called Thinking Outside the Penalty Box (2018), that Nick Makoha and Lizzy Attree started in 2016, supported by funding from the Arts Council, and produced in partnership with Arsenal, Chelsea and the Poetry Society.

The project attempts to showcase African footballers in a positive light.  The main motivation of the work in Thinking Outside the Penalty Box is to tackle racism with positive, inspirational stories and ideas around the incredible achievements of players. The project focuses on examples of positive change in football and uses poetry to evoke and articulate the complex feelings and emotions bound up in the lives of African footballers. You can read some of the poems from this collection here.

Thinking Outside the Penalty Box aims to:

  • tackle racism, sexism and stereotypes of ‘Africa’ in the UK;
  • break down mythologies around footballers;
  • link poetry with African footballers as a way of exploring feelings behind the stereotypes

We worked with Chelsea and Arsenal Football Clubs’ education teams on a series of workshops about the lives of African footballers that play or have played for their clubs.

In total we produced 9 workshops with Chelsea and Arsenal for children at primary schools working with around 100 students. It’s had a great impact on the kids we’ve worked with in London primary schools. Eniola Aluko was one of the main footballers we focussed on in the Chelsea workshops, along with the legendary Didier Drogba and Michael Essien, and her story had a dramatic impact on the children we worked with.  At Arsenal we focussed on Kanu and his heart foundation and Chioma Ubogabu who plays for Arsenal Ladies.

You are knocked down, but you rise,
Running towards the net,
You were ready to fly

And you flew.

from ‘Eniola Aluko’ by Amelia Doherty

We partnered with Chelsea’s Education Team to visit Sir John Lillie Primary School, Sulivan Primary School and Marlborough Primary School, delivering workshops about the lives of African footballers to children aged 9-10 years old. The children composed poems during the workshop and responded to the sessions with feedback that included responses to the question: Did the workshop change your idea of African footballers?

Arsenal’s incredible Education and Literacy team produced an amazing 59-page booklet ‘Arsenal African Allstars’ for their Double Club that went out to all the schools they work with on literacy projects in 3 boroughs. Children from Hanover Primary School and St Andrews Primary School attended the workshops at the Arsenal Hub delivered by poets Theresa Lola and Sugar J, toured the Emirates stadium and played football in rotation. There was great feedback from one of the Year 2 teachers:

“The African Poetry workshops inspired the children to think beyond normal topics of discussion that they may usually be exposed to, it enabled the children to explore and discuss issues that not only players face and experience but anyone in our society who comes from a different country, culture or background…unpicking these together in a group and linking experiences to those of Kanu was really thought provoking for both the children and adults and as a result some really special poems were created.”– Lucy Courtney-Diggins, St Andrews Primary School

Poems were then commissioned from Nick Makoha, Roger Robinson and Sugar J, not only to publish in this collection but also to inspire more young poets to write poems of their own. The poets produced “Lone Star”, about George Weah, “Balotelli” and “Give Invisible”, about Kolo Touré.

In Robinson’s poem, “Balotelli”, the speaker imagines the experiences and feelings of the footballer, using lots of images taken from Balotelli’s life, from ‘jollof rice’ to ‘the thud of your shot’. All these images come together to create a portrait of the footballer, and the poem culminates in a challenge to Balotelli’s (and Robinson’s) audience. In Makoha’s poem he looks at a particular moment in George Weah’s football career on the pitch. The poem is written directly in response to Weah’s Coast to Coast goal in an AC Milan vs Verona match. Sugar J’s poem starts with Touré’s seemingly flippant answer to the question “what would you do if you were invisible for a day” and asks bigger questions about humanity, referencing 20th century New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat particularly his Self Portrait (Plaid).

In partnership with the Poetry Society we set a challenge for the Young Poets Network  to write poems inspired by the extraordinary African lives in football, and we are delighted to be publishing the three winners and a highly commended poet in this anthology.

The First Prize was won by Lydia Wei (USA, age 15) for “The Name Behind the Jersey (Mikel John Obi)”, Second Prize by Hazel Vimbainashe Kamuriwo (UK, age 18) for “Big Man Like You” and Third Prize was won by Natalie Perman (UK, age 17) for “Eni”. Fiyinfoluwa Timothy Oladipo (Nigeria, age 16) was highly commended for his poem “Diaries of Death in June”.

We then worked with the Zambian poet Kayo Chingonyi who ran a workshop for 8 young poets at the Poetry Society, all of whom have produced poems to complete the collection of work in this book. It was extraordinary and unexpected that all of the poets who attended the workshop were women, and many of them were inspired by the lives of female footballers. Cia Mangat, Amelie MJ, Emily Hana, Maria Calinescu, Francesca Weekes, and Amelia Doherty wrote poems inspired by Chioma Ubogabu, Gervinho and Eniola Aluko.

Chingonyi was also commissioned to write a poem in response to the project: ‘Choreography’ explores the transformative beauty of motion, instinct and teamwork in football through the metaphor of dance.

We hope the collection of poetry as a whole will serve to illustrate the range and diversity of voices of poets and their responses to the extraordinary lives of African footballers. As a major outcome of the project itself we hope the Thinking Outside the Penalty Box poetry anthology will form part of the foundation of a bigger project, taking in different football teams, more players, new poets and inspiring a generation of children to think about African footballers differently.

Listen to footballer Eniola Aluko’s interview with Nick Makoha where she reflects on about football, poetry, identity and her Nigerian roots here.


–  by Lizzy Attree and Nick Makoha

Arts Council UkPoetry society

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