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Grenfell Athletic Football Club Sebastian Barros
photography Sebastian Barros

In pictures: a stirring tribute to Grenfell Athletic Football Club

A new zine celebrates the team, which was formed shortly after the tragic events of June 2017

Football, as most of the world has borne witness to in recent years, can be tarnished by greed, corruption, and an industry-wide yearning for financial power. But football can also be beautiful, with those 90 minutes often having an irreplaceable impact on people’s lives. Grenfell Athletic FC is a grassroots Sunday league team born out of unthinkable tragedy, being formed only six weeks after the Grenfell Tower fire back in June 2017. The team – which is made up of both survivors and people from the local area – has been making moves on and off the pitch, with a promotion under their belt in their second season and a kit deal with Nike (even England captain Harry Kane has been seen donning his own GAFC jersey).

Sebastian Barros is a photographer who has published a zine entitled Grenfell Athletic Football Club designed in collaboration with All Purpose, an east London-based design studio. “My personal work is definitely rooted in sports and communities,” the photographer explains over Zoom, with his previous project What’s Good? – a collaboration with Football Beyond Borders highlighting the importance of football in adolescent relationships in a post-lockdown world.  After reading an article about GAFC, he made contact with the team during a COVID outbreak, initially just to meet and get to know the players. “I just thought this is an incredible story and I really wanted to get involved,” Barros recalls.

After spending time with them, Barros was invited to shoot the players while they were doing a July 2021 tour of UK fire services – a period that would end up forming the basis of the whole zine. “It was just a really good opportunity to get amongst them,“ says Barros, “I was really interested to spend time with them all outside of games.” Through a collection of images, the zine offers an unfiltered glimpse into the world of grassroots, community-led football. 

Some of the most captivating images in the zine epitomise Barros’ loose, kinetic style – rarely seen in the world of sports photography. “I am not that keen on traditional sports photography, so I don’t really connect to it in that way,” he explains. While there are many striking images of players gracefully striding with the ball at their feet, his work is also about embracing imperfections: the blurred portrayals of free movement, for example, add real energy to the images – you almost can feel the exuberance burning through the paper.

“I didn’t want it to just be about guys playing football, I wanted to show the breadth of the emotions that they went through” – Sebastian Barros

A lot of the zine bears more resemblance to an intimate photo album – there are images of the players on the coach, visiting tourist attractions, and out socialising. “Those are the elements you see in here where you can really connect with them,” says Barros. “I didn’t want it to just be about guys playing football, I wanted to show the breadth of the emotions that they went through.” 

As well as the images, at both the beginning and end of GAFC are messages from the team’s Whatsapp group chat adding another, deeper level of intimacy to the project. “I didn’t want it to just be a photo zine, I really wanted to have the players’ voices in it as well,” Barros says. “With this work, even though it is about sports, I was very keen for it to reach outside of that, and having bits like [the messages] in there was part of it.” 

The photographer stresses that he looks back fondly on his memories, including staying out with the team until late into the evening. “I remember just scanning around the room, seeing the pockets of players,” he recalls, “seeing their faces and expressions, just how happy they were to be doing something normal with their mates – little moments like that are what really stand out to me.”

For many people, football can be one of the healthiest and most rewarding ways to tackle mental health issues. “[The] men’s team was formed to help them overcome a lot of trauma,” Barros says. “There’s so much more of a conversation to do with men about their mental health, and you can see how football and team sports have been really used as a vehicle for that.” The bonds formed between team members allow for conversations to be had openly, in part due to the intensity of matches but also because of the emotions shared between players, and the highs and lows that come from competitive sports.

Grenfell Athletic Football Club is a project that spotlights how important sports can be in not only forming a community, but also giving back to the community from which it was born. “The club was a catalyst for change in the sense of how it gave people a platform to talk about their grief, but also helped bring them forward in doing their own things in life as well, all starting from a community football team.” Members of GAFC, such as Tayshan Hayden-Smith – who started the Grenfell Garden of Peace – are running their own initiatives now, and are all contributing to an undying legacy; one that has turned tragedy and injustice into hope.

Grenfell Athletic Football Club is out now and available for purchase here

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