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As part of the FA’s Respect the Ref campaign, Jacob Viera shares his quite incredible story. After a horribly traumatic journey from Kenya and with dreams of being a footballer, Jacob found support, safety and happiness in grassroots refereeing.

By Mike Backler and Jacob Viera

As a young and gifted footballer from Nairobi in Kenya, Jacob was spending two pre-tournament weeks in a hotel where he was approached to be a drug mule by a gang hoping to use him to transport drugs to Tanzania. Jacob was in a horrible position that no person, let alone teenager, should ever find themselves in. He was all too aware that if he was caught, it would be him that would be held responsible. If he said no, they would ensure word of the approach never reached anyone else. 

Jacob showed a staggering level of bravery to deceive the gang, telling them that the bus was due to leave a few days later. News reached him on his return that the drug barons had been arrested at the hotel, and now he feared revenge. After his high school education, Jacob returned to Nairobi, but as he began playing football in the Kenyan Premier League, his profile rose and in June 2014 on his return home from training he was attacked and left fighting for his life in hospital for a month.

The attackers had attached live wires to his door handle. His neighbour found him unconscious with the skin on his neck, face and left arm scorched off to the point that he felt the other patients were scared to look at him.

Miraculously, three weeks after being discharged, he travelled for a trial with Newcastle. Terrified to return and after the advice of an academy coach, he sought asylum. After an ordeal that at times saw him running five miles from his accommodation every morning to keep fit, to then being placed in Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre overnight with no belongings and no phone, he was free to start a new life in Liverpool.

“Jacob was spending two pre-tournament weeks in a hotel where he was approached to be a drug mule by a gang hoping to use him to transport drugs to Tanzania.

And Jacob has never looked back …

I was given the opportunity to start a new life in Liverpool in 2014, and while I thought my English was fairly good, I couldn’t understand the Scousers properly with their strong accent and lots of slang.

But Liverpool quickly became my second home away from home. I started playing for local clubs like Edge Hill FC, Mossley Hill Athletic, Mandela FC and Dengo United.

And before long, I was invited to train with the Everton FC Academy Under 18 squad, under Paul Tait. I thought that I was dreaming. Players that I used to watch on television while in Kenya were there, on the next pitch to me at Finch Farm.

The facilities were brilliant. I’d never trained on such grounds before in my whole life. Everything was amazing and the staff so friendly. Indeed: “Nil satis, nisi optimum.”

And that was the place to be if you needed to be the best. Yet frustratingly, until my immigration status was sorted out, I couldn’t sign any contracts.

The first team manager, Roberto Martinez, became and will always be my favourite Premier League manager. He was a very good man, not just as a manager but as a person.

But it was someone else who I met there who helped me onto my next path, and that is Stuart Carrington who was with the Liverpool County FA – a good man with a heart full of kindness, love and support.  

After suffering a knee ACL injury and working on my rehabilitation, Stuart introduced me to the Liverpool County FA to start my refereeing and it’s here that I came to meet very kind, generous and lovely people who have taken me in as their own son.

With my refereeing journey, it’s been absolutely fantastic. I started as a level eight and nine referee when I had my ACL injury to keep myself going with football before my recovery. One year later, I loved refereeing more than playing. My County FA gave me an opportunity and always offered to help with anything.

“I’m proud of what I’ve achieved and happy for the safety I’ve had while I’ve been in England”

These people have made me push myself to the limit in terms of my refereeing career. I had to commit myself, work hard and show determination. I’ve loved every single game I’ve refereed to get promoted. Whether it was girls’, boys’ or men’s games, I’ve had the passion and the teams can testify that I’ve always given my best.

I was selected to be on the FA CORE programme in which as a young referee, you are given a coach or mentor that guides you and advises you on becoming a better referee. When I started, I never had any self confidence; I was very weak mentally and I wasn’t one of the best. It is through the CORE that the coaches have helped me build on my communication skills and improve on my knowledge.

I’ve since won the Liverpool Grassroots Match Official of the Year Award in 2017-18, one of my career highlights, and it’s because of the Liverpool County FA that I’ve met Premier League referees like Anthony Taylor through FA CORE regional assessments.

Last season I was buzzing when I received an email from the FA congratulating me on my promotion to level four. This is what any referee would want to hear. The FA has given me an opportunity that I’ve grabbed with both hands and it’s up to me to use it in achieving my dreams.

I know I’ve got a long way to go with my refereeing career but as for now, I’m proud of what I’ve achieved and happy for the safety I’ve had while I’ve been in England.

I have come to learn that in life, if at first you don’t succeed in whatever you want to achieve, keep trying a million times, even in tough times and never quit. If you believe, every failure can be a stepping stone to something better. 

Life has knocked me down a few times. It showed me things I never wanted to see. I’ve experienced sadness and failures. But one thing is for sure: I always get up.

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