We go pitch-side at the twelfth Homeless World Cup to find out how this alternative tournament is changing lives for the better around the globe
Playing for a better life. In the Chilean capital of Santiago this October, that was the goal of 432 footballers who have experienced homelessness.
The Homeless World Cup uses the power of football to energise homeless people so they can change their own lives. Through a network of grassroots football programmes in 70 countries, weekly street soccer sessions are delivered to tens of thousands of socially excluded people. Once a year, a national team from each country competes in the World Cup.
Co-founder Mel Young emphasised the continuing need for the annual event during his opening speech to players: “The world today for many, many people is not a good place. We have created a cruel world where many people are excluded. This is not sustainable. Too many people live frightened lives trying to scratch a living in the dark. We have to move these people to the light.”
“Too many people live frightened lives trying to scratch a living in the dark. We have to move these people to the light.”
One of these people was Marvin Dulder. He was 15 years old when he moved with his mother and sister from the former Dutch colony of Suriname to Bijlmer in the Netherlands, which at the time was dubbed Holland’s first and only ghetto. “You used to see addicts at the ATMs and there was crime everywhere,” he recalls.
The street had too many temptations for Marvin. He turned to crime and his life became a downward spiral. “You get introduced to boys who make money quickly. You steal something from a shop and then you shift your boundaries,” he says. When he was 24, disaster struck. He was violently attacked on the street because he had stolen “from the wrong guys”. In hospital with serious injuries, he realised things could have ended very differently, and he knew he had to make a choice. “I had to get away from that world. I wanted to do something with my life and find a new focus,” he says.
Football became a way to relieve tension. Together with neighbourhood friends he had a kickaround in a school playground, and one day he was spotted by the coach of the local street soccer team. He started going along for training sessions and slowly learned to manage his anger and build confidence. Taking part in the Homeless World Cup in Chile showed him, he says, “a different world”, and he is now determined to study youth work, and volunteer at next year’s Homeless World Cup in his home town of Amsterdam.
The Homeless World Cup issued annual surveys six months after the event, which consistently showed that more than 90 percent of players have found new motivation for life. Various independent researchers, including those in Australia, have conducted small scale studies that show that between half and three-quarters of players improve their life in tangible ways, by finding steady housing, gaining full-time employment or enrolling in full-time study. More than half of those with drug or alcohol problems manage to address them.
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Since the very first tournament, players have returned as coaches or trainers in following years. Greek Giannis Kotsos played in the 2009 Homeless World Cup in Milan, following a long battle with drug addiction. Due to a lack of employment in recession-struck Greece, he later became a street paper vendor with Shedia, the NGO that also runs street soccer sessions in Athens. Because of this, he was able to afford a home and continued to volunteer as a trainer with the football programme. This year, he was promoted to lead a new Greek team to Santiago. “When I picked up the ID badges for the team, I had to look at mine twice,” he smiles. “It really did say ‘coach’ behind my name.”