Stella and the life-changing power of the Homeless World Cup

How a moment of glory can give lasting hope

Ask Marlon Brando – Stella is a good name to shout.

The last time the Homeless World Cup was played on UK soil, three years ago in Glasgow, the undoubted MVP was the Greek women’s goalkeeper, in spirit if not talent.

Like so many of us whose enthusiasm for the game outstrips our ability, 59-year-old Stella was stuck in goals. During a match against Argentina with one minute left on the clock, Greece was 11-2 down. But Stella was not out.

Take a look at this, one of the greatest moments in sporting history:

As she punched the air, even though all she’d done was pick a ball up from the ground, to Stella and those watching, it felt like she’d just saved a penalty that won the World Cup.

The footage of her heroics went viral, receiving tens of thousands of views, even being shared by former England goalie David James, no doubt looking for tips.

It was only after these euphoric scenes that I learned more about her story. Stella Mavridou grew up in rural Greece in an abusive household with an alcoholic father. She was eight the first time she attempted to end her life. At 13 she ran away and found a job working nights in a cafe. A violent marriage and mental health issues dogged her later life. With savage austerity hitting hard, Stella turned to street paper Shedia, which means ‘raft’, to stay afloat.

If you can’t make it to Cardiff to cheer players on, look for the people carrying the spirit of Stella where you are

When the final whistle blew, players from both sides surrounded Stella and gave her a hero’s reception. Where she or any of them came from, where they might be returning, none of that mattered.

After her return to Greece, Stella visited refugee camps to tell her own story and share her experiences at the Homeless World Cup. According to Shedia journalist Spyros Zonakis, she offering hope and laughter to refugee children and adults who need that most.

Today, now 63, Stella continues to sell Shedia to support herself and her family in the city of Thessaloniki. She vividly remembers the days she spent in Glasgow and the love she received from people that didn’t even know her.

“If I could, I would do it again,” she says. “I remember all these people shouting my name and applauding. I remember how much I wanted to be there. To this day, every time I see or hear an airplane pass, my mind wanders back to these great days.”

DID YOU KNOW…

Since 1991 The Big Issue has sold more than 200,000,000 copies – helping the most vulnerable in society earn more than £115 million.

At the Homeless World Cup kicking off in Cardiff this week, there will be hundreds of Stellas. Some, like the Mexicans, are consistently superb at football, other players may not have kicked a ball until a few weeks ago but whose lives will change forever.

The circumstances that led them into homelessness will be as diverse as their performance on the pitch but the strength, resilience and defiance they show when it comes to tackling adversity is inspirational in a way that would make any football cliché I could substitute in here ring true.

If you can’t make it to Cardiff to cheer players on, look for the people carrying the spirit of Stella where you are. It could be the person you buy The Big Issue from, working towards their own goals, whatever they may be. They defy obstacles instead of being defined by them.

It’s not an easy thing to do. Not everyone gets their shot at glory or their name chanted by supporters, even if they deserve to be treated like a champion.

Steven MacKenzie is features editor of The Big Issue
@stevenmackenzie