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Four things we learned from the Homeless World Cup

The Homeless World Cup made a triumphant return in Sacramento. Here’s why it’s a football tournament like no other

Homeless World Cup

Chile came out on top in the men's competition at the Homeless World Cup in Sacramento. Image: Anita Milas

The curtain came down on the 2023 Homeless World Cup (HWC) at the weekend after more than 300 players from 30 nations went head to head in the Sacramento sun.

The 18th running of the competition, which brings together people who have experienced homelessness from across the globe to compete in a football tournament, was the first for four years after Covid put things on hold.

Homeless World Cup
The Homeless World Cup was held in the United State of America for the first time in its 20-year history. Image: Dan Higginson

The 2023 tournament also marked the 20th anniversary of the first edition – held in Graz, Austria, in 2003 – and was the first time the HWC had gone to the United States

Now the dust has settled in California, here are four things we learned from the HWC’s return.

Homeless World Cup Wales
Players travelled from all over the world to reach Sacramento, including players from Wales. Image: Dan Higginson

The idea of a Homeless World Cup has endured

Before the tournament, HWC co-founder Mel Young told The Big Issue the “simplicity” of the idea had seen it endure for two decades.

But the pandemic put that to the test with follow-ups to Cardiff’s 2019 tournament postponed.

Homeless World Cup
Players were glad to be back at the Homeless World Cup. Image: Anita Milas

So it was all smiles at Sacramento State University’s Hornet Stadium as the players marked the considerable achievement of even making it to the tournament before the serious matter of the draw took place to decide which teams would square off on the pitch.

After four years away, the reception was proof enough that the idea of bringing people together to use football as a vehicle for social change was still alive and well.

Homeless World Cup
Homeless World Cup co-founder Mel Young conducted the draw in Sacramento. Image: Anita Milas

The tournament is just the beginning for players

The Homeless World Cup is a positive experience for players who get the chance to take part but it’s neither the beginning nor the end of their story.

Many of the players taking part in Sacramento sell street papers like The Big Issue around the world or play in football programmes like Street Soccer Scotland, which use football to connect people with communities and services that can help them.

For some players, just getting to the tournament is the culmination of years of hard work to put homelessness behind them. For others, it gives them a brief respite from difficulties in their home country.

This was best exemplified by the Ukrainian team, who were able to play in the tournament after five Scottish Premier League clubs – Aberdeen, Celtic, Hearts, Hibernian and Rangers – came together to contribute towards flights and visas.

Homeless World Cup Ukraine
Players representing Ukraine had to get special permission to play in the tournament while the war with Russia rages on at home. Image: Dan Higginson

Ukraine’s men’s team was pulled together from a range of defence forces, including the police and military, with players taking part in a football programme to rehabilitate them from the experience of being at war.

Their journey to Sacramento started with a bus ride from their war-torn home country to Poland before flying to the US via Amsterdam. As men under 55 are currently not allowed to leave the country, the team required special dispensation to leave temporarily. 

Dmytro Shcherba said: “I think it is very important for the rehabilitation of people like us who just came from the battlefield. Although one never can fully escape, it still helps to switch the mind from what is happening in our country at the moment.”

Homeless World Cup
The tournament was an important step for Sienna Jackson (fourth from left) who has gone from rough sleeping to training to be a dental nurse. Image: Dan Higginson

The US women’s team did not have as far to go to reach the tournament but had their own remarkable stories to share.

Two sets of sisters made up the core of the squad with three siblings from Minnesota and two from Sacramento itself.

Sienna Jackson – the sister of coach and professional footballer Mariah Powers – was rough sleeping before she was connected with a youth service that put her on a path of training to be a dental nurse.

She was all smiles at the tournament as she scored a hat-trick in a 6-2 over Denmark to secure the Nelsen Way Award for her team – the second-tier prize in the women’s competition.

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The Mexican wave is over

Mexico has been the dominant country in the Homeless World Cup over the last decade.

El Tri has taken home the men’s title in four of the last five tournaments as well as the last seven women’s prizes.

Homeless World Cup
As usual, Mexico was one of the teams to beat. Image: Dan Higginson
Homeless World Cup
Chile took on the Mexicans for top honours in both the men’s and women’s categories. Image: Dan Higginson

They made that eight on the spin in Sacramento with goals from Lizbeth J Guadalupe Ortiz and Alicia Romero Morales sealing a 2-0 win over Chile.

It was the same clash in the men’s final but the Mexicans didn’t have it all their own way.

Chile twice took the lead early on, only for the Mexicans to draw level, but once the South Americans went ahead for a third time they did not surrender their advantage and walked out 5-3 winners.

Homeless World Cup
Plenty of Mexican fans made the trip to neighbouring USA to support their teams. Image: Dan Higginson

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All eyes are on ending homelessness for good

The positive action on the pitch was replicated on the sidelines as the Homeless World Cup held a symposium on working to end global homelessness. The first time the HWC has put on such an event.

Organisers worked with Catalyst 2030 to launch the Cities Ending Homelessness campaign at the event. Catalyst 2030 is a global movement of people and organisations committed to advancing the UN’s sustainable development goals.

The campaign is aiming to look at solutions-focused measures of tackling homelessness and including the voices of people who have experienced homelessness as part of the strategy.

Homeless World Cup
A Two-time Olympic gold medallist with the women’s USA national team, Hope Solo spoke about efforts to tackle homelessness at an event running alongside the tournament. Image: Anita Milas

One of the people speaking at the event was Hope Solo, a former US international goalkeeper, whose father experienced homelessness following his service in the Vietnam war. 

“I’ve watched the soccer on show here in Sacramento and it’s incredible. The atmosphere at Sac State and in the Hornet Stadium is providing these players with the platform to change their lives and inspire others to do the same,” she said.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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