When the first Mental Health World Cup kicks off at Queens Park Rangers’ Loftus Road ground this weekend, it will mark an incredible milestone for both football and founder Giancarlo Gaglione.
The 38-year-old first set up his first tournament in memory of his late brother Lanfranco, who took his own life aged just 27 in 2012.
The ‘Lan the Baron’ World Cup was a small-scale, grassroots affair at the time – taking place at Downhills Park in Haringey with the aim of keeping the memory of Lanfranco alive.
Sunday’s 24-team, open-access five-a-side tournament at a Championship football ground is a sign of how far the event has come in the last seven years as it takes on the title of the Mental Health World Cup for the first time.
Initially we started in a local park for five years. We got some goals from Argos and some spray cans to mark out the pitches!
But the mission remains the same – trying to change the game when it comes to getting men to speak about their mental health struggles.
“Me and my family wanted to do something to try and prevent other families from going through what we went through,” Gianfranco told The Big Issue. “For us, at the time, Lanfranco’s death was a real shock.
“Before we suspected that people who go down that road have a very typical route, I guess. They have depression, they tend to be loners, they have challenges in terms of how they communicate with others. And our brother was the complete opposite of that
“So we went down the football route and initially we started in a local park for five years. We got some goals from Argos and some spray cans to mark out the pitches!”
From there, Gianfranco teamed up with Arsenal in the Community to “take the event to the next level” before attracting the attention of QPR last year.
Now, the event will be making its debut on the turf at a professional football ground in aid of mental health charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), who will offer talks and advice on the day.
It’s been a matter of building for Gianfranco – and not just when it comes down to the size of the event. His day job is working for construction firm Overbury and Morgan Lovell and those links have enabled him to get workers from across the industry involved – a workplace where male bravado can hide mental health struggles.
And Gianfranco admitted that even though he has seen the treatment of mental health improve in the beautiful game since he first started tackling the issue, he’ll be lacing up his boots on Sunday to keep the conversation flowing.
“I’ll playing for the Italian team because my dad comes from there originally and England always sells out really quickly so it’s nice to get first dibs on another team,” he added
“I never thought that we’d get to a stadium. When asking people wanted to help and support the event and talk about mental health, depression, suicide and all that, it was a massive taboo. Things have moved on a lot.
— MentalHealthWorldCup (@mhworldcup) April 29, 2019
“I think we are blinded by the Premier League and the astonishing wages that some of the players get paid – at the grassroots level the sport is quite inclusive. Football has always been one of those very macho industries where you don’t talk about certain subjects.
“But the players that we attract are often linked to mental health in some way and it is very rewarding to hear those stories of how people have opened up about it. And I think that the more we do that as a society, the more we can try to change things.”
The Mental Health World Cup will take place on May 12 at Loftus Road. More details here: www.mentalhealthworldcup.org.uk
Images: Mental Health World Cup