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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.