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Homeless World Cup: 20 years of transforming lives through football

The Homeless World Cup returns this week, kicking off in the United States for the first time. HWC co-founder Mel Young looks back on 20 years of football changing lives and challenging stigmas

Players celebrate with a trophy

Austria, winners of Graz 2003. Image: Homeless World Cup

There was a point 20 years ago on the streets of Graz, Austria, when Homeless World Cup co-founder Mel Young knew his idea to host a global football tournament for people experiencing homelessness was a winner.

He was standing alongside fellow founder Harald Schmied in a temporary stand watching a crowd packed together waiting for the football to kick off on the street in front of them. 

Mel Young
Mel Young. Credit: Alayah Quinn, Mile 44

Young heard a “hubbub” and turned to see what was happening. It was applause for a team of Dutch footballers making their way down from their accommodation – and they were being viewed in a totally new light.

“That’s homeless people walking down the street and people are applauding them. It’s incredible,” Young says, casting his mind back to 2003.

“There was something very profound that happened because the day before these people are being spat at in the street. Or the media is talking about them as if they’re the reason for the collapse of the country’s GDP or whatever. As if they’re all evil.

“All that’s happened is we’ve created a football pitch, put soccer tops on them and the whole place is applauding them. It’s the same person, we just changed the backdrop. We could see these sorts of things happening in front of our eyes.

“It just made it very, very special. I can’t believe it’s been 20 years, it feels like yesterday in some ways.”

Two decades on and the Homeless World Cup is back, kicking off in Sacramento, California, USA on 8 July. The life-affirming tournament is usually an annual competition showcasing how sport can be used to create community, bring inclusion and use sport as a vehicle for positive change.

It challenges the stigma of homelessness and brings together projects supporting homeless people across 70 countries, many of them street papers like The Big Issue or social justice organisations transforming lives.

But, like so many things, the global tournament has been on hold for the last four years since the last event in Cardiff back in 2019.

Young has spent the last three years trying to get the showpiece event back on and keeping the global movement connected in any way possible. The 2020 tournament in Tampere, Finland, was called off as the world shut down. A follow-up in New York was also postponed. Local tournaments, such as last year’s Street Soccer Nations Cup in Dundee, have gone ahead but the global get-together has not been possible until now.

“It’s fabulous to be back,” says Young. “Because obviously, with our annual event, and the way we work with our partners in 72 countries, there’s a kind of rhythm to the year if you like and we’d lost that. Earlier someone was saying to me it’s like not having seen the family for years. [Being back] is a big shot of adrenaline in the arm. 

“Coming together is proof that homeless people are in the same boat. It’s the same thing that’s happening in different countries. It’s like a gathering of the clans I guess. I’m Scottish so I would say that.”

A football player celebrates on his knees
An Indian player celebrates in Amsterdam, 2015. Image: Anita Miles

That meeting comes in time to mark the tournament’s 20th anniversary. Over those two decades the Homeless World Cup has touched the lives of 1.2 million people, the Homeless World Cup Foundation estimates.

Each year the network of member countries inspires more than 100,000 homeless people across the globe. More than 500 players participate in the tournament each year, with more than 400 games taking place over the space of eight days.

It has had huge cultural impact too. Actor Michael Sheen was so moved by the idea that he paid out of his own pocket to ensure the tournament in Cardiff went ahead four years ago. Film star Colin Farrell has been a long-time supporter and narrated a 2008 documentary on the tournament called Kicking It.

There’s even an upcoming Netflix-backed film called The Beautiful Game with Bill Nighy and other actors playing fictionalised stories of players whose lives have been transformed by the tournament.

It’s a footprint Young could scarcely have imagined would endure 20 years.

“It wasn’t in our mind. I always say in the original conversation I had with Harald (who died in 2018) when we came up with the idea: we’re pretty good with our imagination and our ambition,” he says. 

“But what’s happened is way beyond anything you could ever have imagined. If you’d said to me you’ll be doing this in 20 years and you’ll have been all around the world, I’d have gone, ‘You’re crazy’ but it all happened.

“It’s a fantastic example of literally thousands of people coming together to make it happen. It’s the football and the simplicity of it.”

A football match in Graz, 2003
Graz 2003. Image: Homeless World Cup

The latest iteration will head to the US for the first time, and to California, which also happens to be the country’s homelessness capital.

It’s a place where Young has wanted the tournament to go for some time, he admits, citing “the attention, the issues and the good work” going on around homelessness in the country.

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The return post-Covid also comes after what Young calls a “massive missed opportunity” to end homelessness for good around the world following the pandemic. So it raises the question: where will the Homeless World Cup be in another 20 years?

Ideally it wouldn’t exist.

“That’s our goal and it’s not something I say glibly because I think we should not have any homeless people,” says Young, who said the HWC is instead hoping to grow to reach more people across the globe. “However, will the situation have changed in 20 years? I hope so, but I don’t think so.

“The exit plan is the world has got the message that homelessness is no good for anybody. Unfortunately, it’s a system failure we’ve got. We’re successful with some people and they move on, which is, of course, fantastic. But as one person moves on they’re replaced by somebody else the next day. So how do we fix the system? That’s where the debate and the action needs to be.”

The Homeless World Cup will kick on around the globe until that message is heard – even if it takes another 20 years.

The tournament will be streaming on YouTube

For more information visit Homeless World Cup

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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