“There’s one guy in Toronto here who basically lives on the flood plain of the Don Valley—in the woods, basically—and he got it together to go with the team and go to Copenhagen. He went and competed there and was like a new man. He shaved off his beard that he’d had for 17 years. He did really well and had the experience of a lifetime. And when he came back he went back to the flood plain. They haven’t seen him since. He kind of passed through their lives and that was it.”
The Homeless World Cup is not a human misery fix-all. It is not, as Dave Bidini told me following the 2008 event in Melbourne that served as the scene of his book, Home and Away: In Search of Dreams at the Homeless World Cup of Soccer, a cure for the addictions, illnesses and social inequities that make homelessness a reality. The very existence of the tournament is demoralizing.
But the Homeless World Cup is also an example of football at its heartening best—the global game at work for a better world, energetic and inspiring.
For every story like the one Bidini tells of the Don Valley fellow, there are countless more like that of Bill Pagonis, who was a rising football talent before developing an addiction to Oxycontin and cocaine. Pagonis represented Canada at the 2008 Homeless World Cup and has since moved into an apartment and found a job.
Mel Young, who co-founded the Homeless World Cup following a conference organised by the International Network of Street Papers in South Africa in 2001, estimates that 85 per cent of tournament participants have returned to their home countries and improved their housing situation.
He says research conducted during and after Homeless World Cups have found that more than 90 per cent of players polled reported a “new motivation for life” while 75 per cent “significantly changed their lives” by finding regular employment or choosing to develop their education. Of players with drug or alcohol addictions, more than half have had success addressing their dependency.
Some of the participating teams enforce a zero-tolerance policy regarding drugs and alcohol, but a more flexible strategy can also deliver success. As Bidini told me about Canada’s 2008 team, “They found that with a [lenient] approach the players would just naturally show up at the games sober. There’s counselling there if they want it, but they use playing on a team as a natural, rehabilitative thing. Within the team itself there are rehabilitative elements.”
One of the things I’ve come across time and again in talking to people about this tournament is that there’s no standard definition for “homelessness.” The stereotype of the unkempt wanderer only applies to a very small percentage of individuals who lack housing, and the transient, unstable nature of a high-risk existence makes it difficult to use the label consistently and properly.
“If somebody is at risk, having a tough life and living on their sister’s couch, they are essentially homeless,” says Bidini. Young uses an even broader definition, saying “homelessness” refers to “those people who don’t have anywhere they can call home and who are often described as the “poorest of the poor” in any country—excluded, marginalised or alienated people.”
Officially, the Homeless World Cup is open to participants who have been homeless, at one point or another, in the two years prior to the event, and only players 16 years of age and older can take part.
The 2012 Homeless World Cup kicks off Saturday in Mexico City and will conclude on October 14. Sixty-two teams will be participating, and matches will be played in the Plaza de la Constitución, or Zócalo. Three street football stadiums have been constructed especially for the event and the ground will be able to accommodate more than 5,000 spectators. Viewers around the world will be able to see the action live on the Homeless World Cup website.
Of course, it would be better if tournament didn’t have to be played at all, if the problems and injustices that caused homelessness in the first place simply didn’t exist.
“Ideally, we would not need to exist,” concedes Young. “But homelessness, poverty and social exclusion are major problems that will never be solved until we take action together, and take the first steps now.”
The Homeless World Cup is a good first step, serving as both an advocacy tool and lifeline for those players seeking a new way forward. As long as there is homelessness, it will be there to shine a beacon of hope down the world’s bleak alleyways. Hope that football can make friends, build a home and show a way. Hope that football can change a fate.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer