A revered Afghan refugee, a spliff-wielding Danish anarchist and an exiled Tibetan monk walk into a bar, all wearing shirts made for them by the same brand. It isn’t the start of an awful joke or the opening scene of an absurd art-house movie. Instead, it’s an implausible – not impossible – encounter made credible by the unique karma-infused ambitions of international sportswear company Hummel.
While the objective of many of their rival brands remains simply to provide gear for the biggest and best teams and individuals throughout the sporting world, all the while keeping a close eye on those vital profit margins, Hummel’s antithetical ethos proves a little more nuanced, more finely tuned, and is clearly pointed in the direction of a far grander dream.
For starters, Hummel, who at present cater to football clubs across more than 25 different countries, are fueled by an admirable obsession with the idea of creating positive change through their work, and this has, on many occasions, led them to seek out opportunities within football to collaborate with not just exceptional clients but clients with exceptional causes. Enter stage left, Afghanistan’s Khalida Popal.
Today Popal’s achievements in football aren’t particularly well hidden, given the media’s tendency to introduce her as “ex-Afghanistan women’s captain”. But for the vile hatred coursing through the veins of so many of her compatriots, so much of her career was played in secret. The reality of her journey to the summit of her country’s game remains every bit as harrowing as it is inspiring.
Taught to play the sport as a teenager by her mother, football wasn’t something Popal had ever given a second’s thought to. Living under the repression of a country like Afghanistan it was clear for all to see that, in the eyes of many, football was not something a young girl should be concerning herself with. But from the all-consuming rush of adrenaline – signalling an altogether uncommon feeling of freedom – brought about by her very first shot at goal, Popal knew the first time she played simply couldn’t be the last.
As far from the school’s Taliban guards as they could get, in complete silence behind closed doors, Popal and her friends played together every chance they could get. In full school uniform, wearing shoes made for anything other than kicking footballs, Popal and her friends laughed like they hadn’t before. Soon, though, their fun would cease as her school colleagues and teachers would come to learn of their clandestine kickabouts and condemn them for their sacrilegious behaviour.
Popal remained steadfast that there was nothing wrong with girls playing football, no single passage in the Quran which denounces the game or their burgeoning love of it, and instead of hanging up her boots, Popal tightened her laces. “The community didn’t want to accept us, we were playing what has always been thought of as a man’s game in our country. The view was that women should always be at home, just be a machine that washes and were used by men,” Popal recounted.
Continuing her peaceful assault on the parasitic patriarchy of her country, in the face of public vilification, Popal elevated her efforts to bring football to more women, desperate to spread the empowerment fuelling her own growing ambitions. Games played in secret behind buildings or in alleys would no longer suffice.
In 2007 Popal and her fellow players, with the help of her mother, established the Afghanistan national women’s team and played their very first fixture, against an International Security Assistance Forces team at the Ghazi Stadium in the country’s capital, Kabul.
Perhaps even more symbolic than the game itself was the venue in which it was played. For many years, their sadistic ways somehow sanctioned by their citations of Sharia Law, Taliban forces had taken to public places such as squares, schools or sports grounds to host their horrendous spectacles of oppression. Lashings, stonings, amputations and executions. Suddenly, Popal and her friends were using the venue simply to play a game of football. The occasion was unlike anything she had ever experienced before: “Women were shot in that penalty area and now I was kicking a football there.”
As Popal’s national tour continued and her influence grew, so too did the price on her head. For years she had abided the insults barked at her and her fellow players by men on the sidelines of their games, ignoring endless accusations of having betrayed their faith. Popal had even played on in spite of her own father and brothers who too saw no reason why she should be playing football and made no effort to hold back their repulsive remarks regarding her supposed treachery. But, under the heat of a growing spotlight, Popal felt as though she couldn’t play forever. It simply wasn’t safe to.
“I became the leader of women’s football in Afghanistan. My voice was stronger and stronger and I changed the nation, from just playing football to talking about women’s rights and issues women are facing in the country.” The moment the issues transcended football and the idea of women’s equality began infiltrating homes across the nation, seeping further into the national consciousness, the threats towards Popal changed in nature and she no longer felt safe residing in her home country.
In 2011 Popal turned to her government for help, for protection. In her words, “my country closed the door.” In the night, with only the handful of belongings she couldn’t bear to leave behind, Popal left her home en route to India. There, without a visa, she lived under the radar, never stopping for more than a night or two in the same area, before eventually finding her way to an asylum centre in Denmark by way of Norway, where she was finally able to settle.
In Denmark, Popal fought new challenges, including a career-ending knee injury which stole from her the chance and desire to carry on her playing career on foreign soil. Instead, Popal focussed on what impact she could continue to have off the pitch, and this led to the foundation of her own charitable organisation named Girl Power, which continues to support the use of sport to empower and improve inclusion and social participation of women across the world.
Her international exploits, and work at grassroots level in Denmark, brought her to the attention of proud Danes Hummel, and together, in 2016, Popal and Hummel collaborated on a project dear to both their hearts: designing the official Afghanistan national team kits, significantly for both men and women, with the innovative and widely heralded inclusion of a hijab – a traditional veil worn by Muslim women – incorporated into the design of the women’s jersey.
Afghanistan’s nation team are a source of pride for many women in the region
“At Hummel, we firmly believe that if you want to create positive change you have to meet people, as well as nations and cultures, where they are,” said Christian Stadil, owner of Hummel. “We sponsor Afghanistan because it is very difficult for us to find another place in the world where there is such a big need for something positive and there is such a big need for something, someone, a platform that creates positive change. And here we have an opportunity; being the beautiful game, being soccer, being football.”
“For a country like Afghanistan, wearing the national uniform is a kind of power, a tool to give self-confidence for a woman. That makes you feel powerful,” stated Popal. “Football gave me an identity. I’m the person football made me.”
Meanwhile, a world away from the violent ruptures caused by the gender inequality issues of Afghanistan, a team of Danish anarchists and hemp-loving hippies set about orchestrating their own unique brand of football and, wouldn’t you know it, they just so happen to be adorned in kits made personally for them by Hummel too.
Situated in an eastern borough of the Danish capital Copenhagen is the infamous autonomous neighbourhood of Freetown Christiania. Once affectionately labelled a “self-governed squat community”, Freetown Christiania was established in 1971 following a decision made by a merry band of anarchists, hippies and idealists to make what was then simply an abandoned military barracks their home.
Their meticulous mission statement, written by anarchist journalist Jacob Ludvigsen, reportedly read as follows: “Christiania is the land of the settlers. It is the so far biggest opportunity to build up a society from scratch – while nevertheless still incorporating the remaining constructions. [Our] own electricity plant, a bath-house, a giant athletics building, where all the seekers of peace could have their grand meditation – and yoga centre. Halls where theatre groups can feel at home. Buildings for the stoners who are too paranoid and weak to participate in the race.
“Yes for those who feel the beating of the pioneer heart there can be no doubt as to the purpose of Christiania. It is the part of the city which has been kept secret to us – but no more. The objective of Christiania is to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the wellbeing of the entire community. Our society is to be economically self-sustaining and, as such, our aspiration is to be steadfast in our conviction that psychological and physical destitution can be averted.”
After repurposing the barracks and hosting many a moving-in party in the ensuing weeks, the opening gambit of Christiania’s first rabble of residents was to write their new society’s rulebook; one completely independent from those imposed by the Danish government.
To this day, Christiania’s rules still hinge upon the nine key principles then established: no weapons, no hard drugs, no violence, no private cars, no bikers’ colours, no bulletproof clothing, no sale of fireworks, no use of thunderflashes, and no stolen goods.
While the commune has long been seen from the periphery as something of a peaceful stoner’s paradise, Christiania hasn’t been without its own conflicts and clashes, and as a result, the landscape of the community has undergone a number of periods of change; some regrettably brutal.
For some four decades beyond its initial transformation from an abandoned army barracks to an alternative autonomous commune, Christiania has existed under special conditions from the Danish government. Acknowledged and largely left to their own devices for many years by the country’s hierarchy, Christiania and its people were afforded particular privileges, such as the part-blind eye turned to their booming cannabis trade. However, many issues were laid deep in the foundation of the ambiguity relating to exactly what the people of Christiania were entitled to do and this in part led to a great deal of tension and, eventually, violence.
In 2004, after the open hash trade was shackled by local law enforcement, Christiania began to take on a new shape, one more in line with the government’s pre-existing laws. This came in tandem with a sharp increase in the number of police sweeps and raids, and bit by bit Christianites saw their own little slice of Utopia being placed under increasing threat.
In 2005 a local resident was shot and killed in a gang attack on the town’s most infamous open-air market place, Pusher Street, which left three others injured. In 2007, violent riots with police broke out and scores of arrests were made in the fallout to the government’s controversial decision to demolish a building known to residents as Cigarkassen (Cigar Box). In 2009 an unprovoked grenade attack on its famous Café Nemoland by an unknown assailant saw five residents seriously injured, though remarkably nobody was killed.
Then, in 2016, one particularly eruptive event brought dramatic change to Christiania. During a routine arrest, two police officers and a civilian were shot – one severely wounded – by a suspected cannabis dealer who was later fatally wounded in a shoot-out with police. This incident predictably swept across the country and was met by outrage, as it had been over 20 years since a Danish police officer was last shot while on duty.
Shortly after the incident, the residents of Christiania voted in favour of a decision to remove by force the drug stalls from Pusher Street, to ensure the safety of the town’s people, and make attempts at moving towards becoming a drug-free town. Today, like a subtle nod back to the militaristic ways that preceded Christiania’s foundation, these particular issues still ferment beneath the community’s colourful exterior.
Despite these concerns, as of the summer of 2017, Christiania homes around 850 residents, who part-govern their town and pay taxes to the nation’s government for the right to reside, as well as for amenities. By way of progression, for some years now the community has boasted its own currency (Løn), its own flag, motto and anthem.
On account of its “mix of homemade houses, workshops, art galleries, music venues, cheap and organic eateries, and beautiful nature” and of course its continued commitment to the liberal values upon which it was built, Freetown Christiania remains renowned the world over and, far closer to home, to many native Danes exists as a microcosm of what many aspire to make the whole of their country.
It isn’t perfect, but it is trying and by continuing to embrace its cultural diversity Freetown Christiania seeks to right the wrongs of its past and spread a message of love and acceptance far across Denmark and beyond, for all its future.
Therefore it is rather unsurprising that for this very reason Hummel saw fit to become involved in kitting out the community’s resident football club, Christiania SC.
Since 2012, Hummel has designed the club’s jerseys, as well as a line of unique sneakers, always drawing inspiration from the autonomous neighbourhood from which the club hails. Uncompromisingly red and yellow, incorporating the two colours first adopted by Christiania’s ambitious residents back in the early 1970s, the kit’s most recent iteration sees local streetwear manufacturer ALIS return alongside secondary sponsor Woodstock, Christiania’s oldest pub, named after the famous festival which first comes to mind.
Stitched to be worn over the wearer’s heart is the club’s stunning crest, which itself features three fundamental elements; the dove, a worldwide symbol of peace; two rainbow coloured bands, emblematic of the town’s continued efforts to encouraging equality; and three yellow dots, commonly regarded as a nod to the three letter ‘I’s’ in the name Christiania, as well as a representation of the trio of perfect circles – found in the ‘O’s’ – in the words “love, love, love.”
On the pitch Christiania’s fortunes have improved greatly in recent years, no doubt in part thanks to their on-going collaboration with Hummel, and while they currently reside only in Denmark’s fifth tier, they’ve serious plans on following the plumes of smoke that emanate from their stadium’s stands all the way to the top of Danish football.
It’ll be a long journey, there’s no doubt. But given what the people of Christiania were capable of forming from the shell of an abandoned military base 40 years ago, it’d take a brave man to bet against their football club today.
Shortly after the turn of the millennium, some years before their exploits with Christiania, Hummel were already busy practising their support of disputed territories, just a little further away from home than eastern Copenhagen, during their sponsorship of Tibet, the exiled autonomous region of China.
Tibet barely registered on the football map before Hummel came along
It all began in the late 1990s when a Danish graphic designer by the name of Michael Nybrandt embraced his fascination with the disputed country of Tibet and travelled there to embark upon what he called a “bicycle adventure”. With a friend, riding together on a tandem bike, Nybrandt aimed to fulfil his lifetime’s ambition to gain first-hand experience of the country he had for so long felt enticed by.
While searching for shelter from the heavy rain one evening, Nybrandt and his friend came across a monastery set high upon a steep hill. Invited inside, Nybrandt stayed the night and began to talk with the many Tibetan monks for whom the monastery was home. Much to his surprise, he soon discovered they enjoyed talking about football and, even more so, they enjoyed playing it. So Nybrandt, his friend, and a handful of monks bonded over a friendly game of football.
That night, while asleep in the monastery, Nybrandt had a dream in which he was manager of the Tibetan national football team. The dream stayed with him, long after he had left Tibet to return home to Denmark to continue his education, and the idea of making it a reality refused to fade, silly though it seemed. The only problem was that Nybrandt was no football manager. What’s more, Tibet didn’t even have a national football team; they weren’t – and in many ways still aren’t – a recognised country and many native Tibetans live in exile in neighbouring countries.
Nybrandt returned to Denmark but he couldn’t shake the feeling that his dream could yet prove prophetic if only he sought to make it that way and so he endeavoured to combine his new Tibetan ambitions with his design work and education back home and eventually, some three years later, travelled back to East Asia, only this time he stopped short of Tibet to settle in northern India where the exiled Tibetan government resided.
To the Tibetan government, Nybrandt presented his study and attempted to pitch his idea for founding a national football team. Sadly most of the Tibetan government had long since given up hope of achieving any type of radical change. In Nybrandt’s words, “The Tibetan people stopped dreaming … because they couldn’t go home.” His presentation seemed to be falling on deaf ears.
But during the intermission, Nybrandt drummed up conversation with one of the sisters of the Dalai Lama, whose positivity reinvigorated his enthusiasm. In no uncertain terms, the Dalai Lama’s sister promised to help make Nybrandt’s dream a reality. His next step was to convince the exiled community that banding together to form a football team was a good idea.
Serendipity played its part in Nybrandt’s dream becoming a reality. Having travelled back home to Denmark, Nybrandt came to learn that the Dalai Lama was visiting his country. So Nybrandt travelled to meet him and had his photograph taken with the Tibetan spiritual leader; the two of them holding none other than the first ever Tibetan national football team jersey, manufactured by Hummel.
Tibet have gained a cult following in Denmark
So, with the support of the Dalai Lama, Nybrandt founded the team and was almost immediately met by insistence from FIFA that Tibet was not a recognised independent state would therefore not be sanctioned to play against any nation recognised by FIFA. But Nybrandt remained undeterred; now he simply had to find another unrecognised state to play against. He found one remarkably close to home.
Greenland, though bordered within the sovereign state of the Kingdom of Denmark, is also an autonomous state, and in the giant icy northern island, Tibet found their first ever opponents. “It was a perfect match between two states that were both famous for their ancient culture, and both had been occupied by colonial powers,” Nybrandt said. All the two perfect almost-nations needed then was to find a venue suitable to host their match; one not owned by a FIFA recognised club. The Vanløse Stadion in the outskirts of Copenhagen fitted that bill perfectly.
In the weeks preceding the fixture, the authorities began to fidget on their pedestal. The Chinese Embassy in Copenhagen attempted to have the game abandoned on political grounds, Greenland’s fish exports to China were threatened, while FIFA made suggestions in no uncertain terms that going ahead with the game could affect Greenland’s chances of being admitted as a future member of their organisation.
But neither party from Tibet nor Greenland buckled. There was no going back now. This was so much more than just a football match – this was Nybrandt’s best and perhaps only opportunity to shine a light on the struggles, mistreatment and political harassment of the Tibetan people. To bring his dream to life.
On 30 June 2001, the unrecognised national teams of Tibet and Greenland came together on a balmy summer’s evening in Copenhagen and contested a football match, sponsored in large part by Hummel. It was no classic, no final or playoff. Just a solitary, one-off football match, and neither side could’ve been happier for its taking place.
As far as results go the game favoured Greenland, the Islanders winning a comfortable occasion 4-1. The honour of Tibet’s first goal, both on the night and of course in its short history, was scored by a secondary school gym teacher named Lobsang Norbu.
The match was played out in front of around 5,000 spectators, while national news organisations from across the world also flocked to be able to broadcast the game around the globe, such was the fixture’s unique intrigue. Suffice to say, Nybrandt’s dream had come true and his message was on its way.
In the years following their foundation, the journey of the Tibetan national team and their chief orchestrator Michael Nybrandt has been immortalised in many forms, most notably in the award-winning 2003 documentary The Forbidden Team, directed by Rasmus Dinesen and Arnold Krøjgaard, as well as in the form of a successful graphic novel named Dreams In Thin Air written by Nybrandt himself and released in 2015.
A national team like no other
“In the small country nestled among snowy mountains the will to fight is still going strong. The impossible has suddenly become possible. And the wish for a national team is no longer merely a dream,” read a statement released by Hummel in the lead up to Tibet’s inaugural fixture. “The Tibetan national football team has become a reality and, by supporting the Tibetan national team, Hummel gives this new team a chance in an old world.”
Just as they would come to do so a decade later with Hummel’s kits for Christiania – which transcended the football club they represented and became garments in and of themselves emblematic of a wider belief and culture – the kits made for Tibet by Hummel became a symbol of shared status, signifying in many cases that the wearer supported not just Tibet’s football team but their unending search for independence from China. Both would find themselves worn by celebrities in public endorsement of their wider connotations.
Once again, Hummel had placed themselves at the centre of a footballing event that was far bigger than the game itself; tenets centred on equality and justice that would seek to refine the world around them and start a chain reaction that would continue to echo long into the future
Whether pouring over the drawing board, discussing the intricacies of another unique blend of street fashion aesthetics and sportswear durability, or turning their attention to hand-picking yet more worthy causes across the length and breadth of the planet and investigating exactly how the company can best support them through collaboration, it is Hummel’s commitment to creating a better place, inside and outside of football, that has carried their name and their beliefs into and beyond so many varied narratives.
In recent years, in addition to their work with the Afghanistan national teams, the people of Christiania, and those fighting Tibet’s corner, Hummel have done so much more to stay true to their company’s code of ethics and continue to operate as one of the most socially responsible corporate entities around.
This has seen Hummel unite with the famously impassioned left-wing supporters of Germany’s most renowned lower league team St. Pauli to fight racism, fascism, homophobia and sexism on the terraces. Hummel sought out Japanese team V-Varen Nagasaki and for them produced a special limited edition kit collection, blending traditional Japanese iconography with stark flashes of colour to commemorate the 70-year anniversary of the city’s atomic bombing in World War II, all the while raising awareness for the ongoing ‘Pray For Japan’ project. Hummel also played a significant role in aiding the launch of the successful Afghan Premier League in 2012 by sponsoring every team in participation.
Whether purely through the cultured implementation of their inventive sartorial flair or through continuing to maintain their “Company Karma” morals they so clearly embrace in their everyday operations – evident in their providing of kit, equipment and funding to the people and children of Sierra Leone after it was named the “worst country to survive in” during the mid-2000s – Hummel continues to challenge the status quo of sportswear manufacturing by refusing to stray from the instructions put forward by their motto “change the world through sport”. Clearly they’re doing just that, one remarkable project at a time
By Will Sharp @shillwarp