Homeless World Cup: Rising star blows whistle on life after injury

There are some players who stay in your thoughts long after the final whistle is blown on a Homeless World Cup (HWC)*. Sometimes that’s because they’re incredibly talented footballers whose on-pitch flair you’ve admired. More often it’s because there’s something intriguing and compelling about them as a person.

In the case of Camilo ‘Chile’s #5’ Gonzalez, it’s both.

When Gonzalez was named player of the tournament at the 2010 HWC in Rio de Janeiro, it was to rapturous applause and a standing ovation. His aptitude throughout the tournament had been impossible to miss. Gonzalez dominated the street soccer pitch with speed and stellar ball control, scoring and setting up an abundance of goals.

Incomparably talented, the then 20-year-old Gonzalez had eyes only for football. So much so that he’d actually run away from home aged 14 to pursue his dream of becoming a professional footballer. He’d been scouted by a club 500 kilometres away from his hometown of Santiago, and his parents denied the request, thinking him too young and wanting him to first complete his schooling. Gonzalez went anyway.

Gonzalez’s outstanding 2010 HWC performance subsequently saw him scouted for Magallanes in Santiago, and it seemed like he was finally living the pro footballer dream. A particular bonus was that his HWC participation helped him reunite with his family. They were enormously proud of his achievements and Gonzalez, whose footballing success had always been slightly tempered by the rift, was now back playing in Santiago and with the support of his family.

But just 12 months into his contract, he sustained during training what turned out to be a career-ending knee injury. Suddenly, he was no longer a footballer. And there was no Plan B.

“In one moment, my professional football career was over,” Gonzalez says. “After the injury, I had to rethink my future. I was devastated.”

In retrospect, he says, the knee injury was a blessing in disguise, albeit a wrenchingly cruel one.

“I think that is when my mindset changed,” he says. “As a teenager I only lived for football and did not consider much else. Now, I realise other things are important. In that time I met the woman who is now my wife, and we have a child together. I now know how important family is and I have found a new motivation in life.”

Although he considered walking away from football altogether, Gonzalez realised it was better to be involved in some way than to not be involved at all. So he completed some refereeing courses and began carving out a future facilitating play.

Gonzalez has returned to the HWC this year, this time as a referee. The 12th annual iteration of the event is taking place in Santiago – a kind of symbiotic bringing together of the football event that changed his life as well a step to marking out his new one. This HWC, his efforts can be witnessed first hand by his family.

“After Rio I really wanted to give back,” Gonzalez says. “When I couldn’t be a player anymore, I decided to become a referee. That way, I am still involved in the game, and I hope to be able to inspire other players who are in the same position I was once in.”

As the only HWC referee to have previously been a player, the now 23-year-old Gonzalez has inimitable insight into both sides of the tournament, especially the complex and competing mix of excitement, nervousness, pressure, homesickness, and euphoria. Of course, refereeing instead of playing is excruciating – for what player would trade it in to whistle a game when they could have been playing?

“It will be hard at times for me to be a refereeing a game instead of playing,” he says, “but I want to do the best I can. The players deserve a great experience, just like I had.’

He’s clearly getting along well with the referees he remembers from his own tournament. He now jokes with South African referee Jabulane Nkosinathi Mahono about the time “Shoes” sent him off.

Besides, he says: “To be selected for the official referee team at the Homeless World Cup in my home city is a huge honour. I still know many of the players and coaches and it is great to share these unique moments with them.’

And he is imparting some wisdom in the process. “When the players come to me, I say I was in Brazil and now I’m a referee, and if I can, you can,” he says.

Gonzalez was cheeky in Rio, as only immensely talented and emotionally invested players can be. I wondered, then, how he might go on the other side of the fence. But he’s attentive, compassionate, patient, and all business in his new role. He says this is because he can be playful off the pitch when he’s hanging out with his mates, but “when I’m on the pitch, I’m very serious and focused”.

The HWC’s power lies in its ability to use on-pitch play to change people’s off-pitch worlds. That’s true for almost every HWC player, but particularly so for Gonzalez. Four years ago, his world was solely football-focused, at the expense of all else. Through the HWC and a particularly cruel knee injury, though, he seems to have found a healthy and genuinely positive balance.

His next steps, he says, are to continue improving his refereeing skills, spending time with family and being happy. They’re humble aspirations, but healthy and grounded ones. I’d never wish a knee injury on anyone, but I am impressed at how Gonzalez has leveraged it for good. For me, he’ll forever be Chile’s inordinately talented #5, although I’m looking forward too to the impact he’ll continue to have on football from the other side.

The finals of the HWC will be held today (Monday).

PHOTO: Danielle Batist

*The HWC is an annual event that uses football to address homelessness and marginalisation.

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