When Cedric Joseph, goalkeeper of the Chagos Islands national team, walks around his hometown of Crawley in West Sussex, he often wears his football jersey whether it’s match day or not.
“Even when I’m not going to training I wear the shirt. I’m proud,” he says.
“People then ask me questions. Some people don’t know anything about the place. I know the history so I can tell them.
“I tell them it’s an island paradise, heaven on earth.”
Joseph, 19, has never set foot on the land he represents.
Growing up in Mauritius, he would beg his grandmother to tell him stories about her homeland, but she would often dodge the question.
Joseph’s grandmother was born on the Chagos Islands, an Indian Ocean archipelago. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the UK evicted the entire population to make way for a military airbase operated jointly with the United States.
Many of the evicted Chagossians were sent to Mauritius, where Joseph was born. But his grandmother’s heart remained in her mother country, and the pain of her eviction at the hands of the British endured.
This is the story of a football team trying to keep the story of their ancestors alive, representing a lost homeland almost 6,000 miles away.
The first Chagos Islands team was established about two decades ago in Crawley, where the vast majority of the UK’s 3,000-strong Chagossian population lives. The team joined the NF-Board, an international body for national football sides unable to join Fifa.
For a time, Chagos Islands FC took part in a local league, also playing occasional friendlies against the likes of Raetia (a province of the Roman Empire in central Europe) and Sealand (an unrecognised micronation that claims an offshore platform off the coast of Suffolk). But there were consistent financial problems and they eventually folded.
Then in 2013, the Chagos Football Association was formed by Sabrina Jean.
Jean’s father grew up on the atoll of Peros Banhos. At the age of 17 he left for Mauritius but always planned to return home. He never had the chance. Jean was raised in Mauritius, moving to Crawley in 2006. She became chairperson of the Chagos Refugee Group’s UK branch soon after.
Her father, like Joseph’s grandmother, also generally avoided talking about his childhood when Jean was growing up.
“They’d try to avoid explaining because they were traumatised,” says Joseph, who moved to the UK in 2016.
“I would see it with my grandmother. When she was telling me tears were coming down her face. I just wanted to know what happened.”
The UK insisted on keeping sovereignty over the Chagos Islands when granting Mauritius its independence in 1968. The local population (most figures vary between 1,600-2,000 people) was then removed and sent to the Seychelles, Mauritius or the UK. Many ended up in extreme poverty and facing discrimination.
Mauritius says it was forced to give up the islands in 1965 in exchange for independence and has since claimed the Chagos Archipelago as Mauritian territory. The United Nations’ highest court has ruled in a unanimous but non-binding judgement that the UK’s occupation of the islands is illegal, but the UK has refused to hand control to Mauritius. It has said it will hand the islands back when they’re no longer needed for defence purposes.
Jean visited the Chagos Islands in 2011 as part of a trip organised by the UK government. It was a bittersweet moment.
“When I first put my feet on the island, even though you weren’t born there, you can feel it,” she says. “You feel the sadness in you.”
“When I was on Peros Banhos, where my dad was born, it was heartbreaking when you saw all the buildings. Your godmother says: ‘When you get to my island you will see the church where I was baptised, where I did holy communion… but it’s very painful because there’s nothing left.”
Jean says one of the most painful moments was going to visit the cemetery where her ancestors were buried.
“It’s devastating, nobody takes care of it,” she says.
“But when you’re on [the island of] Diego Garcia, you see the cemetery of the dogs owned by people from the US navy. They’re buried in a grave with the name of the dog.”
Jean wanted the football team to be a way for the Chagossian community to express their identity. To begin with, she says it was a struggle getting enough players to attend training, but word began to spread in the community and the team soon started playing more regularly.
In 2014 they drew 1-1 against Somaliland and the following year they lost 4-1 to Panjab. Hundreds of the Chagossian community would turn out for home games in Crawley.
Then in 2016 came the team’s biggest moment – at the Conifa World Cup in Abkhazia (a de facto state most countries recognise as part of Georgia).
Confia (Confederation of Independent Football Associations) is an umbrella association for states, minorities, stateless peoples and regions unaffiliated with Fifa, and includes teams from the Isle of Man, Kurdistan and Northern Cyprus.
The Chagos Islands lost all four of their matches, including hefty defeats by Abkhazia and Western Armenia. Ivanov Leonce, 26, who plays full-back, says the tournament was still a success.
“When we went to Abkhazia a lot of people didn’t know about us as Chagossians and they found out about us,” he says.
“We want to show what we’ve been through, what our families went through, where we’re from. One of the ways we have to show our identity is through football.
“The people there, the way people treated us, it was like an actual World Cup but from unrecognised countries. That was my best memory.”
But despite the memories, the team’s results did not improve. In 2018, the Chagos Islands lost against Yorkshire, Barawa (a team representing the Somali diaspora in England), Matabeleland (part of Zimbabwe) and Tuvalu. The following year started with a victory over Surrey, before more defeats by Cascadia (a region in the US and Canada), Jersey and Cornwall.
Then in 2019 Jimmy Ferrar, who had coached local semi-professional clubs, took over as manager. At first some of the community were wary of his intentions.
“When I turned up to Chagos, obviously I’m white, I’m English, and there were a lot of people who thought: ‘What’s he after?'” Ferrar says.
“I think there was suspicion, the Chagossian community is very close-knit. I said I would leave the football association better than I found it, with a better set-up, better infrastructure. That’s one thing I promised Sabrina and all the players.”
Results have started improving. Last year came arguably the team’s greatest achievement – winning the World Unity Football Alliance’s World Series, beating Barawa on penalties in the final.
“It’s always a bit of a party atmosphere no matter where we go. There’s always instruments, drums, singing and dancing. But that’s a weekend I won’t forget,” says Ferrar.
“I remember when the whistle went on the final penalty thinking: ‘We just did that.'”
Despite recent successes, there are problems that persist. Some players have been taken away for questioning by immigration services.
“We’ve had boys carted up to a holding centre at Gatwick and we’ve had to raise thousands of pounds to get them a lawyer and then they’re released a few days later,” Ferrar says.
“It’s a never ending battle.”
In 2002, the British Overseas Territories Act granted British citizenship to resettled Chagossians born between 1969 and 1982. Many had taken the opportunity to move to the UK in the hope of a better life, having faced hardship in Mauritius. Direct descendants of Chagossians who were born on the islands, and who are not already British overseas territory citizens or British citizens, will be able to apply for both forms of British nationality, the Home Office recently announced.
Damien Ramsamy came to the UK from Mauritius in 2006, aged 13. His grandfather was evicted from the Chagos Islands, but he didn’t even know he was Chagossian until his teenage years. After years playing for semi-professional teams around London, Ferrar finally managed to persuade him to join Chagos Islands FC.
Ramsamy speaks passionately about how he feels the Chagossian community has been let down by the British government. He believes they are still treated like second class citizens, with many struggling to make ends meet. He believes the UK should provide compensation or housing to descendants of those evicted from the islands.
“We’re not in the same space as any other British citizen here,” he says. “We didn’t choose for this to happen. Maybe if we were back on the Chagos Islands we’d have some land, here we’ve got nothing. They’re just waiting for us to fade away.
“My grandad is going to die, he’s 82, my grandmother just passed away. How many of our native people have passed away not reaping any compensation? I’m 30 and I’ve seen nothing apart from a British passport. If that is compensation we could have been in Mauritius, living the same.
“My son is two now. By the time he gets to 15 or 16 he’s not going to remember this. I see it with my little brothers, they don’t know anything about Chagos. As the generations move along it’s like we’re fading.
“The football team is important, to keep that momentum going. To not fade away”.
Some of the Chagossian community dream of one day being able to return to the islands, while others want to remain in the UK.
Joseph says he would move to the home of his ancestors if ever given the chance.
“I would go there happily,” he says. “When I listen to my grandmother she says there’s no stress, nothing. Everyone there was just a big community, a big family.”
But until that time comes, he’s happy to be representing the Chagos Islands between the goal posts.
“I have a goalkeeper’s glove that has the flag on it and every time I play I feel great wearing it,” he says.
“You know how proud I am?”