More than a game – Football’s Homeless World Cup


Forget the Champions League, the Women’s World Cup or the Copa America and take an alternative footballing road this summer, to Wales. The small country next to England is hosting the 17th Homeless World Cup.

Tim Hartley previews this year’s alternative football tournament.

The Civil Service Sports Club just off the M4 motorway is an unlikely training ground for your national team. But Wales’ homeless players were showing just as much passion as any European or South American galactico as they were put through their paces. The competition was strong as the tackles came flying in fast and hard. At stake was a place in the starting line-up for July’s World Cup finals.

Players from more than 50 countries will travel to the Welsh capital, Cardiff, to play in the week-long festival of football. The tournament helps transform the lives of people experiencing homelessness. Since the first competition in Austria in 2003, the finals have been played as far afield as Mexico, Norway, Scotland and Chile. When I met the Welsh players and coaches there was no doubt about the power of the beautiful game to really make a difference.

Dai is 42 years old and has been in and out of prison since he was fifteen. He is thick set, has a shaven head and still looks like the no nonsense centre half he once was. Dai started taking drugs and ended up as a dealer in the steel town of Port Talbot. “I played a bit of football back then, had a job for a few months but it was all getting out of control.” Dai got sacked. “I ended up shooting someone and although the person didn’t die and I regret it every day, it goes to show how dark things got,” he said and turned away from me. Four years ago Dai’s brother died. It was time to change. “It was the first time I saw my mother cry,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. I started volunteering with the street football crowd and somehow it all came together.”

Street Football Wales promotes social inclusion in disadvantaged communities. It uses the game to bring together people over the age of 16 who may be homeless, have mental health issues or who are involved in the criminal justice system. Dai leaned back on the bench we were sitting on as we watched the hopeful players trudge off the pitch. “I sort of knew I’d taken from the system all my life,” he said. “It was time to give something back.” Dai returned to playing himself and was part of the Wales homeless team in the Oslo World Cup in 2017. He is now helping coach the current Welsh team.

Four thousand miles away in Minneapolis a player who simply calls himself ‘A’ has a similar story. ‘A’ loved playing soccer all his life but he too hit hard times and ended up on the streets. Looking for a place to stay, he found his way to a charity called YouthLink. There he met an outreach worker called Jose Acuna. That meeting changed his life. Jose runs a street soccer team where homeless young people learn that the sport is more than just a game. Jose says, ‘A’ was able to connect with a shelter and now has a place of his own. “He’s a go-getter type of person and has worked very hard to achieve his goals not only on the field, but in life.”

‘A’ says the game saved him from a life of loneliness and misery. “It’s just somewhere you get to feel like you’re human again, where you’re welcome, where your background has nothing to do with the sport itself,” he said. He’s now been selected for the USA national team. And while travelling to Wales for the Homeless World Cup offers him a personal opportunity and challenge he’s hoping that a bigger message will also be heard.

Homelessness across the UK is at its worst point in decades and the tournament is hoping to create a legacy that lasts long after the final whistle is blown. Alongside the football there will be a music festival and a ‘debate tent’ where high profile speakers and the public will get to engage on issues around inequality and injustice and think up some innovative solutions. There will be work and volunteering opportunities for people experiencing homelessness or social exclusion.

The Hollywood actor and still very much Welsh activist Michael Sheen led the bid to host this year’s tournament. He says, “To help bring the Homeless World Cup to Wales this summer is a real dream come true for me. All around the world I’ve seen how football can play a massive part in helping people transform their lives, bring some joy and hope when things seem at their worst. The football pitch works best when we help each other out. It’s the same in life. Hope reigns supreme at the Homeless World Cup.”

The 17th Homeless World Cup takes place in Cardiff, Wales from Saturday July 27th to Saturday August 3rd 2019.

Spectators can also view a photo exhibition of the Homeless Football World Cup players, run in conjunction with the tournament in Cardiff, by Paul John Roberts


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