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Scoring life goals at the Homeless World Cup

“Señor, señorita! Picture!” On the streets of Santiago the players in their bright coloured jerseys are constantly in the spotlight. Young and old want their photo taken with the stars around the pitch, right behind the Chilean presidential palace. The supporters cheer on the teams as if this is the actual world championship, but these players are not used to being applauded: this is the Homeless World Cup.

More than 50 men’s and women’s teams from 42 countries take part in the week-long event. A brainchild of social entrepreneurs Mel Young and Harald Schmied, the competition was first held in Austria in 2003. Scotsman Young and Austrian Schmied were both street paper editors who figured that it would be nice if their homeless street paper sellers could meet each other. They were looking for a common language in which their vendors from different countries could interact and realised that one already existed: football. A street soccer pitch was erected on a central square of Schmied’s home town of Graz and 18 nations took part. The Homeless World Cup was born.

Twelve years on, the tournament has grown into a global football festival. With more than 500 players and some 100 volunteers, it descends on a different city every year. To aid the goal of reaching as many people as possible, iconic locations are picked. Previous tournament venues include Brazil’s famous Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, an arena right beside Edinburgh Castle in Scotland and the park next to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. This year, the appropriately named Plaza de la Ciudadania (Citizenship Square) offered the stage for participants to demonstrate their skills.

Players are no longer all street paper sellers. The Homeless World Cup Foundation now functions as an umbrella body for national partner organisations who run local street soccer leagues involving many more players year round. The Homeless World Cup rules state that players can only take part in the tournament once. They must have been homeless in the past year, have been an asylum seeker, or have been through drugs and alcohol rehabilitation and have been homeless in the past two years.

Given the wide range of countries, the challenges for each team are different. There is no global definition of homelessness, but the organisation says the rules must apply “according to the national definition” in each country. In India, players come from some of the poorest slums. In richer countries like the Netherlands, the government makes a distinction between “actual homeless” and “residential homeless”, the latter referring to people who are registered with social care institutions such as rehabilitation centres or assisted living programmes.

Although their socioeconomic status differs vastly, many of the issues players face are the same. Unemployment, drug and alcohol addiction, debt, mental health issues, the criminal justice system and family or relationship break-ups are often cited as elements that pushed them down a path of homelessness. One of the Homeless World Cup goals is tackling is the loneliness and exclusion experienced by participants. Inclusion in a team gives players a real sense of belonging and being not just wanted, but needed.

Through the common denominator of football, spectators are led to challenge their preconceptions of homelessness.

It remains a challenge to measure street football’s overall impact on peoples’ lives. Research into homelessness is notoriously tough. Expensive longitudinal studies are needed to draw conclusive results. Arranging follow-ups with people experiencing homelessness is challenging as their circumstances tend to change quickly and often. On top of that, the people who experience problems and are not doing well tend to be less likely to respond to a survey than people who have a success story to report.

The Homeless World Cup Foundation itself has issued surveys six months after the event, which consistently show that more than 90% of players have found new motivation for life. Various independent researchers, including in Australia, have conducted small-scale studies. They show that between half and three-quarters of players improve their life in tangible ways: by finding steady housing, gaining full-time employment or enrolling in full-time study. More than half of those with drug or alcohol problems manage to address them.

For recurrent visitors to the event there is another kind of evidence, which presents itself more powerfully than simply anecdotally. Almost since the beginning of the tournament, players have returned as coaches or trainers in subsequent years. David Duke is CEO of Street Soccer Scotland, a nationwide social enterprise with more than 20 paid staff and Alex Ferguson as its ambassador. Duke holds an Honorary Doctorate from Queen Margaret University and is a regular speaker at high profile football events, including the Euro 2008 Sport and Development Forum and the Doha Goals Forum. Ten years ago, the same David Duke was a player in the second Homeless World Cup after experiencing homelessness in his native Glasgow. Once he returned as a coach and manager, he led Scotland to win the tournament not once, but twice.

Welshman Dai John was a player in Milan in 2009 and has worked as volunteer and then as staff member for Street Football Wales ever since. He attended the tournaments in Poland and Chile as coach of the Welsh women’s team. Last year, he was accompanied by his former teammate Terry Fitzpatrick, who was assistant coach of the men’s team. This year, Beth Clayton joined him as a peer support worker. The 19-year-old was a player last year after having lived in a homeless hostel for 18 months to get away from her abusive step-dad. Making her first-ever flight abroad last year, she now accompanied the new girls all the way to South America.

Like Dai, Greek Giannis Kotsos (see link: he is the fifth player in the picture) also played in Milan, following a long battle with drug addiction. Because of a lack of jobs in recession-struck Greece, he later became a street paper vendor with Shedia, the NGO that also runs the street soccer programme. He was able to afford a home and continued to volunteer as a trainer with the football programme. This year, he was promoted to lead a new Greek team to Santiago.

When I picked up the ID badges for the team, I had to look at mine twice. It really did say “coach” behind my name.

This year, the first former player returned to the tournament as a referee. Camilo Gonzalez was the rising star of the 2010 Homeless World Cup in Brazil. Having run away from home aged just 14 to pursue a junior signing at a professional football club, he found himself 500 kilometres away from his family who deemed him too young to give up school. Following Rio, where he was crowned Best Player of the Tournament, he was signed for Magallanes, a Santiago-based club. His family finally were proud of him, but it was not to last.

Twelve months in, an excruciating knee injury abruptly ended the only career Camilo had ever known and planned for. “I was devastated”, he says with eyes that still give away the mental pain. “I had to rethink my future. After Rio, I really wanted to give back. When I could not be a player any more, I decided to become a referee. That way, I am still involved in the game and I hope to be able to inspire other players who are in the same position I was once in.”

Spontaneous scenes

Around the pitches and the players accommodation and canteen, spontaneous scenes keep even non-football fans and accidental passers-by engaged in the action. Language barriers are bridged by pointing, enacting, or simply kicking a ball around. On the pitch, Fair Play is an official rule. Players shake hands before and after every game as well as after making a foul.

Many teams do a little extra to keeps spirits up. Some bring souvenir gifts from their home countries, others practise some words in their opponents’ language to wish them luck. The men of this year’s winners, Chile, created a guard of honour for their opponents, including Greece, whom they beat 12-0. When the Welsh women lost 10-1 to Brazil, they applauded the dominant team off. At the end of every game, teams join together (and often mix up the line) to salute the supporters.

And then there is the music. Each team gets to pick their favourite song to be played right before their game. Players dance jointly to the tunes, from South Korea’s Gangnam Style (proudly executed by the men from Scotland) to Indian Bollywood moves copied by various Eastern European players, smiling widely.

The Irish team got their own special musical serenade. The owner of one of Santiago’s Irish pubs had read in the Irish Football Association newsletter that the Homeless World Cup team was in town. He hastened down to the pitch and invited the entire team over for an evening of Irish music played by a Chilean band, and a meet and greet with the Irish expats who would form their fan club away from home. The free bar consisted of soft drinks for all the players, though, as the tournament has an alcohol ban for players to respect those with addiction problems.

To the light

The story of the Homeless World Cup has global appeal because it combines the world’s most-loved sport with a social intervention that manages to involve some of the hardest to reach groups. It even has attracted the attention of a team of Hollywood filmmakers, who paid a research visit to the site this year. But however useful a big-screen movie might be in terms of exposure for the Homeless World Cup and its foundation, the players’ real life stories are so powerful that no dramatic plot changes or special effects are needed.

“You are showing the world how we as human beings should behave”, Mel Young said to this year’s players in his annual speech. “The world today for many, many people is not a good place. We have created a cruel world where many people are excluded. This is not sustainable. Too many people live frightened lives trying to scratch a living in the dark. We have to move these people to the light.”

In the spotlights of the Santiago pitches, that is exactly what happens to the 500 lucky street footballers who made it in to their national street soccer team. “People told me: stop playing, football won’t get you anywhere. And look where I am now.” Dominicus Hangara (20) looks around the pitches and smiles. Last year, on the streets of the Namibian capital of Windhoek, he would not have believed it himself.

The Southern African footballer grew up in a small place in the townships as the second youngest of eight boys. His dad left when Dominicus was ten and his mother took to selling clothes on the streets to try and provide for the family. She left the house at 8am and did not get back until 7pm, leaving the boys to look after themselves.

“Saturdays were the only days my mother was home and we’d all literally fight for her attention”, he recalls with a wry smile. “During the rest of the week my older brothers were supposed to look after us, but three of them are alcoholics. They drank all day, I don’t even know where they got the money from. They used to bully us a lot and the place was too crowded with all of us there.”

As soon as Dominicus turned 16, he started to run away from home. Initially he would leave for a few days but he ended up being gone for weeks at a time. “I just had to get some air”, he explains. He stayed with friends for some weeks and ended up on the streets. With cheap alcohol and drugs rife, it was not long before he started using both.

Like many other street children, he discovered the highly addictive drug crystal meth. By 18, he was using so much that he overdosed. In hospital, he woke up to find his mother crying by his bedside. When she heard about the Namibian street soccer programme, which focuses on street children and boys with addiction problems, she made sure he went down.

“In the beginning, she would ring the coach before the training to tell him to come and pick me up”, he recalls. “She knew I would eventually find back the love of football I had as a child. Thankfully, she was right.”

Caption: Team Scotland sings along to the team tunes ahead of their game against South Korea in the Homeless World Cup in Santiago, Chile, 20 October 2014. Photo: Danielle Batist

(*Disclaimer: I have covered street soccer since 2006 and reported from the Homeless World Cup since 2007. I have also been the Editor of the International Network of Street Papers which, together with the Homeless World Cup, can use some of my work for free. All content remains editorially independent.)

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