While the lights went out on Euro 2016, the “Homeless World Cup” kicked off in Glasgow, 900 Km further north. 64 male and female teams from 52 world countries, 14 European teams present, totaling 512 players. No billionaire football club or skyrocketing salaries for them, but a life on the streets, often in situations of despair and marginalization. The athletes are selected, trained, and prepared psychologically and emotionally, thanks to numerous “street football” projects implemented in 420 cities in 72 countries worldwide, involving over 100 thousand homeless every year. This singular football competition that thrives on charity, donations, volunteers, has been ongoing since 2003. The first match was played in Graz, Austria, whose organization was entirely “made in Caritas.” Since then it was a crescendo of figures and successes of inestimable value.
The stadium on the square. Thus three football fields with relative steps set up in George Square, in the centre of Glasgow and in the heart of Scotland, will host, until July 16, the Homeless World Cup 2016. There is no need of tickets and the match is free of charge: 100 thousand spectators are expected to attend the event. The players paraded in the city center, with coaches waving national flags during an opening ceremony held Sunday, July 10. The trophies of the men’s and women’s tournament were presented and the matches commenced.
One match after the other, twenty-minute each, at the pace of a formidable desire to win the competition: a thrust to return to win also in life.
Rigid rules regulate this unusual championship: players must not be under 16; they must not have participated in the competition before; they must have been homeless for the previous year; they must have earned a living selling paper materials, scrap iron or similar activities. Those who are in Glasgow have also pledged to undergo a social reintegration process.
“I understood that I’m not alone.” David, 29, plays under the banner of Northern Ireland. He is fighting to defeat the spiral of alcoholism. He said: “We are very well treated. I met many people and learned many new things, and I realized that I’m not alone. I’m not the only homeless or the only alcoholic.” David has a talent for football. His dream is to participate in the 2017 championship as the team’s coach. Organizers estimated that the Homeless World Cup has had a positive impact on the life of one million homeless persons.
For two thirds of participants the World Cup ushers in a rehabilitation process, contributing to improved relationships with family and friends.
This is what happened to Lyndon Rennie, 27, who took part in last year’s competition in Amsterdam, playing in the team of Grenada, Caribbean. He was one of one of many semi-illiterate and unemployed youths in this “paradise island.” “You receive so much love from the people surrounding you!” He said upon his return. “All the homeless were there, and the feeling of unity acts like a boost to come out of that situation.” Lyndon was able to find a job and returned to live with his daughter.
From the favelas to the national team. Michelle used to live in Cidade de Deus, a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Taking part in the Copenhagen match was the beginning of a journey that brought her to being selected for Brazil women’s national under-20 football team. Bobby from Bulgaria was raised in an orphanage and after having turned 18 he lived as a homeless, amidst hunger and loneliness. One day, while standing on a line for a warm meal, he heard someone mention the selections for a “hope team.” It was 2012. He managed and traveled to Mexico City, where his new life began. When he returned he found a job, completed his studies and resumed his dreams. “I dreamt I could work with poor children like I once was, to help them have a better life.” At 39 James participated in the 2014 tournament in Chile: a devastated life behind his shoulders, including prison and heroin. The rehabilitation centre and the determination to play football helped him get back on his feet.
No TV, but there’s the Internet. These are the true champions, but no TV network competed to obtain television rights. Fortunately, they can be seen running after the ball and their dreams at www.homelessworldcup.org, smiling at the end of each match, even when they lose. For football is a game, it’s not life. But a game can help you in real life.