Ever since I joined The Big Issue two years ago, I’ve done scores of interviews with players, coaches and organisers about the Homeless World Cup.
In virtually every one, I have heard how it is a “life-changing experience”, “almost indescribable” and “you have to experience it for yourself”.
Today, with the 2019 tournament in full flow in Cardiff, I finally got to experience it first-hand.
One of the people who told me just how powerful the impact of the Homeless World Cup can be is Wayne Ellaway. Merely seconds after arriving at Bute Park, I bumped into the Wales coach striding confidently between the pitches, looking like he was in his element. Just six years ago he was battling addiction in the very place where an international football tournament is now being held. It’s a remarkable transformation.
You won’t find Fifa throwing a football extravaganza with Big Issue vendors on the door either.
In Bute Park you can meet vendor Ahmed Hashi, on a brief break from his pitch at Waterstones across the city. Or you can meet Mark Richards, who sells the magazine at Cardiff’s Queen Street Station and also works in The Big Issue’s Cardiff office sending out subscriptions. In fact, Michael Sheen, the actor and activist who spearheaded Cardiff’s bid for the tournament, did just that. He signed a copy of The Big Issue for Mark, leaving him with a beaming smile and vowing to “make sure he doesn’t sell that copy!”
Or you can meet Dean Williams, who has already been making the most of the opportunity to meet people from around the world. Dean waxed lyrical about seeing comedian Sara Pascoe at one of the tournament’s cultural side-events as well as noting how he wished he had played in the tournament but his health had not allowed it.
“I have been playing for The Big Issue Cymru in Street Football Wales’ league though. We’re top!” he told me with a grin and a fist-pump.
Dean also mentioned how much he’d enjoyed meeting a vendor from Big Issue Korea. Vendors from The Big Issue’s sister paper make up the South Korea team and they welcomed the chance to tour The Big Issue’s Cardiff office, while one vendor chatted to Dean through an interpreter. “It was a great opportunity for them to see how we do things in Wales,” Dean said.
Another nation that is represented by a street paper is Greece, with Shedia vendors making up their numbers. Their heavy defeat by the Poles also underlined the wonderful support from fans in Cardiff – every goal that the Greeks scored was greeted with huge cheers from the crowd. Substitutes turned and joined in with shouts of “Greece, Greece, Greece”.
That support was also on show in the first match I saw – where better to start at any World Cup than watching the boys and girls from Brazil? The Samba street stars even called on a player called Juninho – or the “aptly named Juninho” as he was called by the commentator after smashing a goal home.
But Brazil didn’t have it all their own way against an Austria team who pegged them back to 2-2 after being two goals down but went down fighting to lose 6-5.
However, it was Scotland’s tussle with Germany that underlined just how much the Homeless World Cup means to the players who get this opportunity to represent their country.
Andy Byrne and John Jack had told me they were going to give it everything – they weren’t kidding. After Germany went 2-0 up, it was Andy who dragged the Scots back into it with a side-footed finish which saw the ball go in off two posts before scoring a smartly taken drive.
And as the clock ticked down and the Germans started to come back into it, John was at full stretch to block a shot with his legs at 6-4. Street Soccer Scotland founder David Duke then bellowed from the side-lines “That’s time!” when Germany hit the bar with the clock reading zero and the score at 6-5.
Even in my own short experience, it is easy to see why the Homeless World Cup can have such an enormous impact. It is part of a journey for every player and the work done after the tournament is just as crucial.
But try telling that to the players putting everything on the line for their country in Cardiff – it’s a spirit that even the predicted thunderstorms on Wednesday will have a hard job dampening.