Homeless World Cup: Back In the Game
If the Scotland squad (left) for this year’s Homeless World Cup in Mexico City want to know how much the event means, they just need to look back to the class of 2011. There was true joy in Paris last autumn when a thrilling 4-3 final victory over Mexico meant the Scots became champions for a second time.
This year brings a new tournament on a new continent and, in line with the organisers’ aim to reach as many people as possible, a whole new set of players. David Duke, CEO of Street Soccer Scotland (supported by housing association Dunedin Canmore), estimates he and coaching staff have assessed around 700 people this year. He believes they have found the right eight men to represent their country.
“The success last year may mean a bit of added pressure but they just have to work hard, come together as a team and enjoy it,” says Duke. “They know this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity rather than just a trip abroad. Doing well is about more than just winning. Last year’s players really mixed with all the other teams. To see what other people from around the world have been through can be humbling and inspiring.”
Mark Stack, 35, from Coatbridge, lived through years of heroin addiction and homelessness before involvement in Street Soccer Scotland turned things around, helping to nurture his confidence and self-esteem.
“Without that, I wouldn’t be able to reintegrate with people,” he says. “I’ve went through my life without really having anything, so even to be selected is a massive achievement.”
The England team for the big tournament in Mexico City can claim to be among the best prepared in the world, having enjoyed some of the best advice and support available – training sessions have taken place at the facilities of Manchester United, Arsenal, Everton and West Bromwich Albion.
The first ever English women’s Homeless World Cup team will also be taking part this year, and Gareth Parker, head of the Homeless FA, says both squads will benefit from an expanded support staff keen to help players put their problems behind them.
“We’ve tried to place a big emphasis on personal development and I think the eight fantastic men and eight fantastic women have each achieved a tremendous amount already,” says Parker. “We hope they’re all at the right stage to take this amazing opportunity in Mexico to make positive changes in their lives.”
Mauva Hunte-Bowlby, 52, was selected through the Arsenal training centre. “I’m still struggling to find somewhere to live in London but my prospects are looking a lot brighter at the moment,” says Mauva, who volunteers with the homelessness charity St Mungo’s.
“It’s been great to train at my favourite team’s stadium, to connect with teammates and get a chance to go to Mexico. Regardless of age or gender, you get the chance to have this amazing experience and hopefully inspire other people too.”
Billy Wise, a 19-year-old from east London (in the picture below, top row, third from left), was also selected through the Arsenal training centre. “I always played football but I was struggling with being homeless for a while after my parents kicked me out,” he says.
“Getting involved offered me a chance to get going again and to start doing my coaching badges too. I want to take a lot out of this – it’s a great chance to make a connection with people from around the world, to ask them what it means to them to take part.”
The Welsh team are playing in the Homeless World Cup for the first time since 2009, with the funding struggles that thwarted hopes of taking part in recent years now firmly behind them. Keri Harris, project leader of Street Football Wales, is overjoyed to have secured enough support from the Welsh Assembly, Sport Wales and Gwalia Care and Support to send a men’s squad to Mexico. “We’re absolutely delighted to be making a big return,” says Harris, who still has fresh memories of coaching the first participating Welsh side back in 2003.
“It’s great if you can get a strong team together, all doing things together as they progress, but I think the most important things actually happen after they come back and try to bring the experience into their lives.”
Swansea teenager Geraint Edwards, 18 (wearing No 2), says months of training with Street Football Wales have already had a huge impact. “I saw a poster about it in the hostel where I was staying and went along with a friend. I got really committed. It’s helped keep me on the straight and narrow, fit and active. I just can’t wait to get there. I can’t believe I’m getting to represent Wales at something I love doing – playing football.”
Teammate Alain Ali, 23 (wearing No 3), shares the excitement. “I wasn’t doing anything with myself, just drinking and taking drugs. Now I’m running every morning with my brother, waking up every morning refreshed. I think playing football for Wales in Mexico will be amazing.”
This year’s Homeless World Cup runs from October 6-14 in Mexico City’s Plaza de la Constitución. It’s the 10th anniversary of the week-long annual tournament and is set to be the biggest yet, featuring 72 sides including several debut nations: Bulgaria, Moldova, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Vietnam and Pakistan.
The women’s Homeless World Cup is held simultaneously with the main competition, and both tournaments feature a frantic four-a-side street version of the beautiful game. Studies show that more than 70 per cent of players make significant changes in their life after taking part in the competition (beating addiction or finding a home, a job or entering training, for example). The tournament has attracted support from football legends such as Eric Cantona, Rio Ferdinand and Emmanuel Petit.
For more information, see homelessworldcup.org
Words: Adam Forrest and Joseph Dick
Pictures: Tom Bunning