- Lifestyle & Sports
- 08 May 22
Things may have eased somewhat nowadays, but – for Emma Starr – that’s only after having visa applications rejected again and again… and again. Including when she signed for Crystal Palace and seemed set for the high road…
“You want a visa? Why don’t you just marry a nice English man?”
That wasn’t really the advice I had in mind, or had paid for, but at that precise moment, it was starting to seem like the most viable option.
To say I had been naive was an understatement. I was in my last semester of college (university) in the States, when I decided to look for an Exercise Science internship abroad. Really, I had used up my excuses in the local college bars (“Dammit, I think I’ve lost my card”), and been caught with a fake ID.
And then there was the night I spent over $120 on $2 shots (don’t ask).
So, off to Manchester I trotted.
Did I know anyone there? Nope. Where was I going to stay? I didn’t have a clue. But I had an email from the manager of Manchester International Football Academy in my possession, which said that they would be delighted to have me. Why, I am still unsure.
During my time in Manchester, I was able to train with the boy’s or rather men’s academy team, rubbing shoulders with players ranging from 14 years old to 23 years old. As a slight 21-year-old female, I quickly got used to the elbows in the face. I became one of the ‘lads’.
As an academy student, I took the opportunity to send a few emails to coaches in the area, and in London, reaching out to teams like Tottenham, Charlton, and Watford.
Playing soccer in the UK, I quickly found out how little I really knew. Like, that you’re allowed to sprint past people in underground stations without getting weird looks; that a ray of sunshine poking through the perennially-grey English skies calls for mid-day pints; and that visas were – and still are – a pain in the ‘ole.
I was invited to numerous club training sessions. Did the 3-hour journeys (each way – thankfully I had downloaded plenty of episodes The Only Way Is Essex beforehand), and spent hundreds of euros at the train station Costa(s). I must have been doing something right. I was offered a spot on each of the teams I had trialled for.
YOU’LL HAVE TO MARRY A BRIT
Hooray, says you! I had lucked into an amazing once-in-a-lifetime career changing opportunity Right? Wrong. I was about to find out about immigration, passports, visas – and how unfortunate it is to be an American.
One could argue that we are in the doghouse due to our horrific accents, dubious track record in electing Presidents, and extremely concerning gun laws. However, it is actually due to the fact that it is so to get hard a visa, almost anywhere, without going through a painstakingly long process that makes building Rome seem like a dawdle on a children’s Lego set.
In my young and blissfully unaware state, I assumed that there’d be a way to get a work visa and stay in the UK. Like chipping a keeper from 40 yards out or not finishing an entire sleeve (packet) of Pringles, it is easier said than done. A lot easier.
Off I went to a local immigration bureau. They would surely point me in the right direction. After doing some online research myself — honestly, I’ve spent so much time Googling ‘how to get a visa for X country’ I could have a Doctorate’s degree by now — I found out that I could get a professional sportsperson visa.
Or so I thought. They asked me some questions. How much are they paying you? Are you married? Are you... American (shudder)? Having clarified the horrifying facts, the highly-trained immigration officer told me my best bet would be to marry someone from the UK so I could get citizenship.
Ah yes, why hadn’t I thought of that before?
Now, the thought of donning a gorgeous white gown was undoubtedly at the top of my list of ‘things to do as a tourist in Manchester'. Oh yes! The problem, however, was finding someone to marry me.
I didn’t take his advice. Despite the, of course, mile-long queue of eligible suitors who were waiting to ask my father for his (ahem) blessings, it was a bridge too far for me to contemplate.
It was especially irritating that the men’s team could offer the Sportsperson Visa to foreigners — yet the women’s team couldn’t. The women’s teams in the UK were not tied in with the men’s teams at that stage. They didn’t – and some still don’t – have the funding to pay a player’s salary for a year. Thus, visa denied.
LIFE IS GOOD
For the next two years, I played soccer in Portland, Oregon, and then got an opportunity in Copenhagen, Denmark. After the season was over that spring, I had a friend who played for Crystal Palace — a team in the Championship in England. This was it! UK redemption time. I was all for a comeback story.
Visa denied the first time, she comes back years later, tears up the league. That was what I imagined anyway. But, sometimes — most times, actually — reality wins out.
This time, I headed to Palace in early July, went through pre-season, and was offered a contract with the team. After the quickest ‘yes’ ever uttered, I felt a sudden wave of relief. I had done it — I’d put in the hard work to get back to my top form and to be signed for an elite team.
The hazy state of bliss, like after doing shrooms at Coachella, wore off after about after 3 days. Arriving at training a few days later, the club secretary informed me that, due to visa issues and FA regulations, foreigners could not play in the league unless they had played for their own country’s national team.
Never have I wanted so badly to be from Luxembourg. I mean, getting on the USA national team was a pipe dream — but a 22-year-old who was still trying to break into a foreign league was NOT going to get the attention of Pia Sundhage any time soon.
“So — what now?” I asked, biting off the last of my fingernails.
“Well, we don’t think you’re officially allowed to play on the pitch for us….”
It was a hammer blow. Visa regulations had thwarted my comeback story once more. I was back to the starting line.
Well, behind the starting line actually — that very same training day, I broke my leg. I must have short-changed the barista at Caffe Nero or splashed a puddle of water all over an old lady while running to the bus in Bromley, because karma really went for me.
So, here I was, with no health insurance to cover any hospital costs, no team to legitimately play for, and a room rental with a creepy old guy who liked to talk to me about English game shows. I hobbled my twenty-block walk home that night from training.
Overall, this cruel world has denied me a visa more times than I have stamps in my passport(s),
Yet, here I am. Two healed legs and a team to play my heart out for in Galway WFC. Over the past three weeks, we’ve had a win over Bohemians, a draw with Wexford Youths and a win over Sligo. We’re missing our Irish international full-back Savannah McCarthy. But Kate Thompson has stepped into the defending role and is doing a great job. Nicole McNamara is back from injury. It is beginning to come together.
We’re mid-table. Not knocking anyone fancy off their pedestal. Yet.
What can I say? Life is good. A few more wins and it’ll be heaven.
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