It was an ankle, badly broken while playing football (oh, the irony), that started local photographer Simon Di Principe on a project that would span a full football season, taking him hobbling every Sunday to Hackney Marshes, to capture the incredible passion and equally incredible diversity of the players there.
It was a venture, something to keep him occupied while he recuperated from the injury, that gradually revealed itself to be far greater than the sum of its parts. On a personal level it brought Simon closer to his father, an Italian immigrant who left Italy in the early 60s. “He found himself in the East End, barely able to speak the language and knowing very few people,” reveals Simon. “I didn’t know this until quite recently, but he then met some fellow countrymen who introduced him to Sunday league and he ended up playing for an Italian team on Hackney Marshes.” Indeed, it was only when Simon was assembling a book of his portraits, aptly titled Grass Roots (£35, palmstudios.co.uk), that he discovered he had actually been to watch his father play on Hackney Marshes as a boy. “It was my mum who told me, I was probably only five or six at the time and had no real recollection. But it was a nice thing to discover. It was like coming full circle.”
In many respects, little has changed since Di Principe senior first donned his studs for a kickabout in a windswept corner of Hackney. Today, the Sunday league still attracts young men from many different countries and cultures, looking for friendship, a sense of community and also, of course, a chance to show off their footballing prowess. “The amazing diversity of the players was something that only slowly dawned on me,” recalls Simon, who would shoot between five to ten footballers at a time, come rain or shine, as the varied skylines (sometimes dotted with high rises, all too frequently leaden) and different, natural lighting of the images bear testament. “I became conscious of just what a phenomenal melting pot of cultures and backgrounds there was, and I realised it wasn’t just the footballers I was documenting, but also the fact that this area is home to such diversity and it’s what makes the place so vibrant and special. “In the book, there’s an index at the back where I have head shots of all the players, their names and where they’ve come from. There are Germans, Nigerians, Ukrainians, Ethiopians, Jamaicans, Poles – the list goes on. I think it’s an amazing thing.”
Another facet of the project that Simon found equally as fascinating was the contrast between these Sunday-league players and those of the Premiership. “That was a massive point for me,” he confirms. “These guys get up every Sunday morning for the genuine love and passion for the game. They don’t need 300-odd grand a week to motivate them. This is grassroots football, pure and simple, and it’s as important to the future survival of the sport as the Premier League.” And speaking of survival, Simon is keen to point out that Hackney Marshes themselves could also be under threat unless we remain vigilant. Originally created just after the Second World War as a dumping ground for the rubble created by the Blitz, and quickly appropriated as football pitches, the Marshes in their post-war heyday could host up to 120 matches. Today that figure is down to 80, with sections of land sold off over the years to developers, and most recently the Olympic Park. “It’s such a unique and special place, it really should be protected,” says Simon, whose book will hopefully go some way to doing just that.
By Kelly Beswick
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