It’s time for the big kick-off as the Homeless World Cup heads to Mexico

Teams from England, Scotland and Wales are among the 47 countries that will take to the pitch in Central America for (probably) 2018’s biggest football tournament

For some, football doesn’t come home and that’s why the Homeless World Cup has been such a phenomenon since kicking off in 2003.

The unique tournament is less about the VAR, the diving and the penalty heartbreak that made the mainstream money-printing FIFA competition in Russia so captivating in the summer.

Instead the 63 teams from 47 countries who will descend on Mexico City’s iconic Zocalo square to play street football from tomorrow will be focusing on the sport’s immense power for change.

For every one of the more than 500 players, the 16th edition of the Homeless World Cup offers a trip to escape day-to-day troubles, the chance to be part of a bigger movement and develop positive relationships to turn their life around.

That has been the reality for Wales women’s coach Wayne Ellaway, 43, who mixes his Street Football Wales activities with a full-time job at The Big Issue working with vendors in Newport and Gwent.

Making his debut as a player in 2015, Wayne coached the male team for two years before taking on the mixed team’s role this time around.

“It’s actually been a crazy year for me because I have started working for The Big Issue as well,” said Wayne. “I knew some of the team in Cardiff so I started volunteering and The Big Issue helped me pass my driving test and then I got a full-time job working with vendors in Newport and Gwent.

“This year I have seen eight vulnerable girls grow over 12 weeks into eight confident women and transform emotionally as well as overcoming personal problems. The football is second for me – first and foremost it is about how they are growing personally. I know that journey from when I was playing and when I was homeless.”

Wayne will be hoping to impress Street Football Wales patron and superfan Michael Sheen with his side’s displays while other global superstars who have turned their attention to the tournament in the past include actor Colin Farrell and ex-Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

There will be an expected 200,000 spectators at the tournament with millions more watching online and it is likely that the local crowd will pack the four purpose-built pitches with a partisan sea of colour and noise.

And with good reason as Mexico has dominated the tournament alongside, you guessed it, Brazil.

DID YOU KNOW…

Since 1991 The Big Issue has sold more than 200,000,000 copies – helping the most vulnerable in society earn more than £115 million.

The two battled it out in last year’s men’s final, with the Samba boys coming out on top 4-3 to become the first team to win three times, while it has been just six years since the tournament was last in Mexico.

“I’m looking forward to the food and culture in Mexico because it has been a childhood dream for me to go there,” he said. “When I was a kid about the age of seven or eight I had a world book and the two things that fascinated me were the Northern Lights and the Americas. I didn’t get to see the Northern Lights in Oslo so it will be a real dream to finally see Mexico for the first time.”

Wayne will not have too far to travel next year – Cardiff will be the 2019 host – but he’s not the only one who will be living the dream, as England coach Craig McManus explains.

“We never focus on winning – it’s always on fair play and the experience. And there is a lot of excitement and a bit of fear about going to Mexico because some of the team have never left the UK before,” said Craig. “What we don’t want is this team to get falsely elevated by the experience – when they come back they will be doing job applications and all sorts of things like that and so the Homeless World Cup is just a part of their development.”

Glasgow-born Craig’s experience of the Homeless World Cup harks back to when he captained Scotland to a win against England on home turf.

Since then, he has switched allegiance, heading south to work with Centrepoint, the charity who organise the England team.

Craig’ dedicated team work alongside Premier League clubs like Arsenal and Chelsea to put on sport sessions from which the final squad is pulled from.

His remit is now to spread the programme across the country, encompassing Centrepoint hostels in Sunderland, Barnsley, Southampton and more.

And watching his players develop in the months leading up to the tournament has taken Craig back to how his time on the pitch has given him the stability to find stability in his career, relationships and housing.

“It was a fantastic experience being involved in Street Soccer Scotland, especially as I was at a point of change in my life. I was on the up because I was in recovery from drug addiction,” said Craig.

“The year before I had lost my dad and it had torn my family apart and my behaviour didn’t help matters. But playing in the Homeless World Cup gave me the opportunity to be myself in a different environment and to be part of something bigger than myself as well as playing the game I have loved since I was six years old.”

Craig’s former pals at Street Soccer Scotland have received a boost before embarking on their journey to Mexico with a final training session run by Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers.

The players were put through their paces at the Glasgow giants’ Lennoxtown training centre last week to prepare them for the tournament.

David Duke, founder and chief executive of Street Soccer Scotland, said: “Brendan has worked with some of the best players in the world, so for the teams to be getting their final training session from someone of Brendan Rodgers stature is incredible and will give such a large confidence boost to every player.”

Images: Homeless World Cup