Football belongs to everyone

Looking up from ground level at Ayisat Yusuf concentrating, balancing a football on the side of her foot, the darkness of a dimly lit indoor stadium roof behind her. The lights shine like evenly spaced stars.
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Ayisat Yusuf is a former professional football player who is encouraging immigrant women to do more sports through the NGO Monaliiku.

Ayisat Yusuf, 34, is a busy person. She runs six different sports groups at Monaliiku NGO and coaches three Finnish football teams. Yusuf is also a member in the FARE (Football Against Racism) network and she runs the SheFootball project in Nigeria. She has two children, aged nine and seven. 

"This is what I want to do. This gives me great pleasure: I have been able to reach my dreams", she says.

Yusuf moved to Oulu in 2005 because of football. She has played for Finnish football teams and on Nigeria's national team, which took her to the Beijing Olympics.

"I retired because I had nothing left to play", Yusuf says with a smile. 

Moving to Finland was a challenge for three reasons: the cold weather, a different culture and a tricky language.

The first word Yusuf learned in Finnish was "pallo" ("ball"). Obviously. 

"Everyone on my football team was lovely and welcoming, but I found myself sitting alone in the changing room after practice. African culture is very social, people talk to each other. Here I could not find a connection to people. Partly because very few would speak English." 

Ayisat Yusuf is smiling at the camera, standing behind sports netting.
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Yusuf married her Nigerian partner in 2009 and moved to Helsinki.

At the Naisten Kymppi female running event, she was introduced to Claudia Nystrand, who had just started a new job as the Director of NGO Monaliiku. The company's mission is to promote opportunities for multicultural women to do more sports. Nystrand asked Yusuf to start coaching sports groups for women. 

"I got a nice feeling from Monaliiku and of the city of Helsinki. There are more people here from different cultures and communication is easier because most people speak English." 

The start was a rocky. Yusuf had to take care of her two children while her husband was temporarily in Nigeria. Yusuf ended up bringing her kids to practices. They kept quiet on their mobile phones and learned to adapt quickly. 

"I didn't give up. When you believe in yourself, you can accomplish anything. I want to have a voice in society as a woman. I want to prove that women do not need to stay at home to take care of children. Immigrants should not underestimate themselves." 

Ayisat Yusuf
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Yusuf has made friends with lots of employees at the NGO. She enjoys being able to help immigrant women through her work. 

"Monaliiku has strengthened my self-confidence. It has had a huge impact on my life. I have learned better Finnish and met people from different cultures through the organisation. I respect everyone there. I understand, for instance, that religion can put limitations on sports practice." 

If a woman on Yusuf's team informs her she has a prayer time at 1 pm, Yusuf will design a suitable and inclusive practice schedule. 

Immigrant women tend to get less exercise than other women. Yusuf understands this from her own experience. Cultural prejudices still exist, and Yusuf experienced them growing up. For example: some women are concerned that they will develop big muscles through sports. It's also hard to find a suitable training partner or team. But Yusuf has noticed that women find it easier to approach her, as immigrant woman.

People tend to find out about Monaliiku through word-of-mouth recommendations.

"This is a place where they feel safe," she explains. "I want to promote the understanding that football is for everyone. We haven't reached equality yet: female footballers get paid much less than men, and I am the only female coach amongst men." 

Yusuf enjoys Helsinki and now she feels like a Finn when she goes to Nigeria too. 


I have visited many countries, and this is one of the best. It is safe and more equal here than elsewhere.

Ayisat Yusuf
Ayisat Yusuf

Monaliiku is a multicultural sports organisation for women, which offers opportunities to play many types of sports in a safe environment. In addition to sports-related activities, the NGO' organises events and childcare. 

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Ayisat Yusuf is a former professional football player who is encouraging immigrant women to do more sports through the NGO Monaliiku.