Homeless World Cup: Life's game-changer

There’s an eerie outsiderness to seeing on social media that my team did poorly in the Champions League. (And to be watching the media storm surrounding why Mario Balotelli, star striker yet to strike, was pulled from the pitch at half time.) Even more so when you’re at a week-long event that costs less to put on—and is arguably more important and effective—than a single Champions League match.

The Homeless World Cup (HWC) is an annual event that uses street football to change perceptions of, and tackle, homelessness. It puts Champions League controversies and budgets into joyous and slightly sobering perspectives.

Its games are 14 minutes long, comprising of two seven-minute halves played at frenetic pace (you can watch the 2013 men’s final between Brazil and Mexico here...

And the women’s final between Chile and Mexico here...

All the players have been homeless or marginalised (according to definitions of those terms in their home countries) in the past 12 months.

The HWC moves cities every year, with this 12th instalment being hosted in Santiago, Chile. This year, 42 men’s teams and 12 women’s teams from a total 30 countries are competing for the championship.

And, as with every year, some incredible stories of tragedy – but mostly triumph – are already emerging.

Ebola fear-mongering

Southern African nation Namibia arrived under less-than-pleasant circumstances. When the team landed in Santiago, they were required to undergo Ebola testing. This was despite the fact that Namibia is situated in southern Africa, geographically distant from the West African countries plagued by Ebola. The team was then doorstopped by a media frenzy in the arrivals hall. The Minister for Health had reportedly tipped off the media that the Namibian HWC was bringing Ebola into Chile.

Team coach and manager Bethuel Uirab initially thought the media contingent was there to greet them – a not-unusual occurrence for a well-publicised HWC. Instead, the media asked him about, and reported widely on major television networks, the Namibian team bringing Ebola into the country. The team was jostled by media, photographed and recorded by them and the general public. People even stood on chairs to catch a glimpse of the apparently Ebola-carrying team. Simultaneously, some crowd members hooted at the players as if they were monkeys.

It was a shitty introduction to the country for the team – many of whom were travelling abroad for the first time – and to an event explicitly designed to overcome such forms of social exclusion.

Funding challenges

Although money is tight for all HWC teams, it’s tighter for some than others. Cambodia – a country to which Australia is unconscionably attempting to deflect people who are seeking asylum – could not afford to send the full contingent of players.

Rather than missing the event, as some other teams such as Palestine and the Philippines have had to do, they’ve come anyway. A goalkeeper supplied by the Chilean reserve team is making up the numbers.

This means that Cambodia’s three outfield players will have to play every single minute of every single match played in 30-something degree heat across the eight-day tournament. These players include 17-year-old Langeng Taeng, whose malnourished formative years spent living on a Cambodian garbage dump so drastically stalled his growth even the Cambodian passport authorities were convinced he was 12, not 17.

“Everyone is constantly commenting on how small he is,” team manager Paraic Grogan says. “They’re just shocked. I suppose he is the perfect example of what happens when you have malnutrition.”

This no-substitutions issue is reminiscent of Brazil’s 2013 experience, where they had just four players instead of the requisite eight. Brazil managed to win the HWC and star striker and player of the tournament Darlon Martins has since been scouted by professional football club Flamengo.

There’s just one stark difference: Cambodia is not an entrenched footballing nation and the Cambodian players are far, far smaller than the larger, more physical rivals they will encounter. Yet the team will, as Grogan told me, walk when they can no longer run, and crawl when they can no longer walk.

“For us, the most important thing is for us to be here,” Grogan says. “Because for us, we believe the HWC for Cambodia is like the Olympics – you mightn’t ever win a gold, but it’s all about being there. It’s all about taking part.”

The photos of players such as the Namibian and Cambodian teams make the event look like any other sporting one. In many ways that’s the point—the HWC highlights that people who are or have been homeless and marginalised are no different from you and me.

But it’s the stories behind those photos that are, journalist Danielle Batist points out, what makes this event goosebump-inducing compelling.

The baby-faced 18-year-old Dutch goalkeeper, for instance, was just a few months ago almost catatonic through drug addiction. Now clean, his reaction time has improved so significantly he single-handedly delivered his team a crucial, progression-stage victory by saving not one but three penalties.

One of the players from the Swedish women’s team is in the early stage grips of multiple sclerosis. Clean as a result of her involvement in street football after over two decades of drug use, she was dizzy the first time she tried playing. Her illness continues to hamper her abilities on court.

“It’s the first time I’ve done something I’m not good at,” she tells me. “But it doesn’t matter. I just keep coming back.”

For some of the players, the hardship is extremely recent. One player from Argentina lost his daughter just weeks ago. He came only because his other daughter encouraged him to come along regardless and is following the live stream from home.

One Irish player dances out his nerves pre-match with a one-man dance party. The team’s pre-match mantra, which dates back to a previous HWC quip misunderstood, is: “I’m a colossus. Nothing gets by me.” The Scottish regularly belt out ”I would walk 500 miles…” while the Welsh’s hilarious songs include the lyrics “Oh fluffy sheep, oh fluffy sheep are wonderful”.

The Indian women’s team’s goalkeeper has sustained a serious finger injury, but has had it splinted up and refuses not to play. She grimaces each time the ball hits her gloved hands and occasionally requires some cold-spray treatment, but nothing stops her from blocking shots.

Meanwhile, physiotherapy students have come from Denmark and Norway to volunteer their time treating the players. This is all the more remarkable given that the effort is in addition to their studies – this doesn’t count as credit for their prac.

For over two decades, HWC co-founder Mel Young has been asking people if they think homelessness is a good idea. “No” has been the resounding answer, followed by the addendum “but we’re not sure what to do to tackle it”.

Positive, proactive, turning tackling homelessness into a celebration rather than a chore, I’d argue the HWC is essentially showing them the way. While the world truly is fukt, as the Financial Review presciently published some months back, the HWC makes me understand the world, its hurdles and their potential solutions better than anything else combined.

Some 80% of participants surveyed report the event has changed their lives – a figure even Young didn’t initially believe given his long experience working to address homelessness and knowing all too well how one step forward is often followed by two or even six steps back.

And it goes aeons to breaking down us-and-them barriers, both culturally and in terms of the world of haves and have nots.

While the reasons for people’s homelessness vary from country to country (and even within those countries), and while those reasons can include anything from poverty to broken families to illness to drug and alcohol addiction, “the unifying thing,” Young says, “is the exclusion you can see in people’s eyes”.

Universally, that look disappears over the course of the tournament as the public – and the players themselves – begin to see the players differently. And the HWC’s ripple-effect legacy continues as players return home and change not only their lives, but others’ too. After 12 years, many of the team coaches and managers are former players.

For them, it’s an opportunity to give back. For people like me fortunate enough by pure virtue of the birth lottery to not have experienced homelessness, it’s a touchstone. There’s more, much more, I could and should be doing to help address homelessness. But like most others, I’m not sure how. The HWC is, at least, a start.

PHOTO: Elaine Livingstone