At TSV Lengfeld, the coach is a therapist

At TSV Lengfeld, the coach is a therapist

Many players on the Bundesliga team are refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan. For them, it's about more than sports.

The smallest Bavarian soccer league stadium is in Augsburg, where 28,000 people watch the games on average. TSV Lengfeld also plays in the Bundesliga, in cricket, but there is no stadium - not even spectators. "Every now and then, walkers stop at the edge of the pitch," says head coach Wolfgang Merz. But they leave after a few minutes, probably not understanding the rules. "I don't understand everything myself," admits the 62-year-old, adding that cricket is a complicated business. The man from Lower Franconia is bald, has a mustache and is responsible for the cricket department of the Würzburg district club TSV Lengfeld. But does he know anything about the sport? A little at best.

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Merz is a coach for social reasons. There are 20 players on the team, 18 Afghans, two Pakistanis, and all but one of the refugees. Merz is their mentor, integration helper, father, and mother. And he provides support in difficult times. The team experiences such times regularly. When the captain was sent back to Afghanistan in February, eight players disappeared - and never reappeared. Not at practice, not at the game. Half the team was gone, overnight. At one time the team was one of the favorites on the site's cricket betting.

Since cricket teams in Germany are mostly made up of refugees, deportations are the sport's biggest enemy, especially in Bavaria: When it comes to repatriations to Afghanistan in particular, the Free State is considered particularly restrictive compared to other German states. When 69 Afghans were deported last year on the 69th birthday of Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, 51 from Bavaria were on the plane. For those affected, this was a blow of fate; for the Bavarian cricket teams, it was a sporting fiasco: Will the best players be retained? Will there even be enough on the pitch tomorrow?

But there is also a bright side. The sport is booming like never before. According to the German Cricket Federation (DCB), player numbers are growing nationwide like no other sport, especially in Bavaria. Is the world sport of cricket on its way to the top? Not quite. According to the DCB, there are 34 teams in Bavaria, with cricket competing more with finger-wagging than with soccer.

Many are still in the asylum process, others only have a temporary residence permit.

Wolfgang Merz can sing a song about the dominance of soccer. The coach sits on a white plastic chair at the edge of the artificial turf pitch in Lengfeld and watches his players perform a throwing exercise. The sports field is surrounded by semi-detached houses and front gardens. The Bundesliga team trains in the small-town flair with the intensity of an A-class team. But they are all wearing their red and black jerseys; after all, a Bundesliga team has to look the part. Behind them, on the grass pitch, soccer is being played. The second team of TSV Lengfeld is training there for its next match in the district league. "Actually, a grass field would be better for us, too," Merz says. But he says he is grateful to be able to train with the boys here at all. Merz started the team. He had contact with a refugee family that was housed in the gymnasium at the sports grounds. That was in 2015. That's where the boys approached him. "They told me they wanted to play cricket," Merz says. So he called TSV Lengfeld.

For Isakhan Zazai, that's a blessing. The 19-year-old's black hair sticks to his face in a sweaty mess, he scurries all over the pitch in a fluster, has something to discuss with each of his teammates. He could talk for hours about cricket, throwing techniques, runs, batting stances, all with bright eyes. That the rules seem very complicated to most people here? Completely incomprehensible to him. "I've been playing since I was a kid. It's normal in Afghanistan, it's like soccer here," he says. He has been in Germany since 2015 when many refugees arrived.

From 2014 to 2016, the initial applications of Afghan asylum seekers in Bavaria increased ninefold. After that, they declined again, even below the 2014 level - partly because of stricter deportation practices. A word at which Zazai winces. If he is deported, he says, "my life is in danger." His chances are not bad, however. The court has issued a ban on deportation in his case. "Besides, I have found an apprenticeship," he says proudly; he wants to become an electrician. The fact that a family has taken him in also increases his chances of being allowed to stay here permanently.

That makes him rather an isolated case in the team. Many of them are still in the asylum process, while others have only been granted toleration. Since the German Foreign Office certified stability in some regions of the conflict-torn country in June 2018, deportations to Afghanistan are generally possible again. For the team, this is not good news. "We've been losing players ever since," Merz says. Whether because of deportation or fleeing to the West out of fear of it. Part of the team regularly breaks away from the Bundesliga club Lengfeld. Games with a shorthanded team are not uncommon. "I now have the entire substitutes' bench from last year playing," says Merz. Whether this is related to the second-to-last place in the table that the team currently occupies? It doesn't matter, he says, it's not just about the sport here.

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On the artificial turf field, a player walks up to Merz, sweating wet, a smile on his face. "I might do an apprenticeship in logistics," he calls out to Merz, that's what he wanted to tell him. "Good training?" asks Hamed Stanikzai. Yes, the trainer replies, many jobs there, good choice. For Stanikzai, Merz is a contact person in all situations. The weekly training are distraction and therapy. He came to Germany in 2017, the flight was traumatic. Half of his family was murdered by the Taliban, and he lost the other half on the run. Training allows him to clear his head for a few hours, reported "I see a psychiatrist, take a lot of medication," he says. He can't cope with the pain any other way. He's not alone in that. "All my players are in psychiatric treatment and take something ", says Merz. That's not good for performance in the game. But the game is good for the players.

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