Soccer gives migrants a taste of home in St. Petersburg

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Soccer makes migrants feel at home
Rustam Mustafakulov, labour migrant who plays for FC Maxima amateur soccer team, fixes his boot at the half-time break during their St Petersburg city's championship match in St. Petersburg, Russia, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov 
A player from FC Maxima amateur soccer team receives medical attention after their St. Petersburg city's championship match in St. Petersburg, Russia, May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov 
Mohammed Hafez, labour migrant who plays for FC Maxima amateur soccer team, plays with his daughter Ailana and a dog at his home in Sverdlov settlement outside St. Petersburg, Russia, May 27, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov 
Players from FC Maxima amateur soccer team celebrate a goal during their St Petersburg city's championship match in St. Petersburg, Russia, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov 
Head coach of FC Maxima amateur soccer team Bakhtiyar Yusupov greets a player during their St Petersburg city's championship match in St. Petersburg, Russia, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov 
Players from FC Maxima amateur soccer team rest at the half-time break during their St Petersburg city's championship match in St. Petersburg, Russia, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov 
Head coach of FC Maxima amateur soccer team Bakhtiyar Yusupov talks to players at the half-time break during their St Petersburg city's championship match in St. Petersburg, Russia, May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov 
Players of FC Maxima amateur soccer team before their St. Petersburg city's championship match in St. Petersburg, Russia, May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov 
Rustam Mustafakulov, a labour migrant who plays for FC Maxima amateur soccer team, walks on the roof an apartment building after repairing a gutter in central St. Petersburg, Russia, May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov 
Rustam Mustafakulov, labour migrant who plays for FC Maxima amateur soccer team, goes to work in St. Petersburg, Russia, May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov 
Players from FC Maxima amateur soccer team in action during their St. Petersburg city's championship match in St. Petersburg, Russia, May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov 
Players of FC Maxima amateur soccer team attend a training session in St. Petersburg, Russia, May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov 
FC Maxima's Mohammed Hafez fights for the ball during their St Petersburg city's championship match in St. Petersburg, Russia, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov 
A player from FC Maxima amateur soccer team kicks the ball during their St. Petersburg city's championship match in St. Petersburg, Russia, May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov 
Head coach of FC Maxima amateur soccer team Bakhtiyar Yusupov poses with players for a team group photo after their St Petersburg city's championship match in St. Petersburg, Russia, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov 
Players from FC Maxima amateur soccer team attend a training session in St. Petersburg, Russia, May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov 
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ST PETERSBURG, Russia, June 4 (Reuters) - Far from his native Uzbekistan, labor migrant Rustam Mustafakulov has found a second home in the World Cup host city of St Petersburg, playing soccer with other immigrants from Mali to Turkmenistan.

The 34-year-old window cleaner plays for FC Maxima, an amateur soccer team set up specially to help immigrants settle in the northern Russian city. He says the regular sport and close camaraderie keep him going.

"We have been playing together for so many years, we've all become friends," said Mustafakulov who played professional football in his native Uzbekistan.

Maxima, which also comprises players from Egypt, Cameroon, Armenia and Egypt, was formed in 2007 in St Petersburg, one of 11 Russian cities hosting the FIFA World Cup that kicks off next month.

Mustafakulov says life in Russia has not always been easy, and that some locals have made comments about his nationality and accused him of taking jobs that should go to Russians.

The team's Turkmen founder and coach, Bakhtiyar Yusupov, said he set up the team to make players "feel at home, regardless of their social status."

"(They) are all equal on the pitch," he said.

Maxima has taken part in St Petersburg's city championships, a competition for amateur soccer players, finishing fourth in 2017.

Some of the players are hoping to use the team as a launch pad to higher tier football.

Mohammed Hafez who moved to Russia after meeting his now-wife Natalia at a beach resort in his native Egypt is hoping to get talent-spotted by scouts.

The 27-year-old is hoping to emulate the rise to fame of Egyptian Liverpool striker Mohamed Salah.

"This is my dream, to play, and I will not give up, God willing I will make this come true," Hafez said.

In Russia, migrant workers often carry out poorly paid menial work, and according to human rights groups are subject to frequent document checks by police and suffer racist discrimination.

Russian authorities deny migrants are mistreated and say document checks are required for national security. (Writing by Tom Balmforth Editing by Alison Williams)

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