|Jawad Zahid of Afghanistan raises the trophy after his team won the 2008 Homeless World Cup in Melbourne. (Mark Dadswell/Getty Images)|
Chronicling the wins - and losses - at the Homeless World Cup
The first Homeless World Cup, which included 18 teams, happened in Graz, Austria, in 2003. A Scot named Mel Young and an Austrian named Harald Schmied organized the event to raise awareness of homelessness through soccer. Since the former is a worldwide problem, and the latter is a game played nearly everywhere, they figured the match was a natural.
By the time Dave Bidini, a Canadian, got involved with the players his country sent to the Homeless World Cup in 2008, there were 56 teams. The 2011 edition - which begins this weekend in Paris - will include 64 teams from 53 countries. Homelessness, like soccer, is thriving.
Homeless soccer players bent on international travel face singular obstacles. Passengers whose official papers are criminal records and prescriptions for methadone make the authorities edgy. Conveying even a small team (they play 4 on 4, rather than 11 on 11) of homeless players to a tournament presents a challenge, as does the tendency of some homeless people to vanish, whether or not they play soccer.
So it was not surprising that the Canadian team Bidini accompanied to the 2008 Homeless World Cup in Melbourne required reinforcements when they arrived. Among the authentic Canadians were Billy, a former pro player done in by Oxycontin, and an abused teenager named Krystal, who did her sleeping on a bench in the Toronto bus station. They were joined by Melbourne residents who came and went, including Vannie, a Vietnamese refugee who had recently joined the Australian Street Soccer Program, where he spent his first two weeks “in the corner of the gym with his legs drawn to his stomach, too afraid or uncertain to participate.’’
Lots of the other players Bidini introduces in the book have issues. One sees in the 18-hour flight to the tournament a good opportunity to kick his addiction to narcotics. This does not go well.
Great soccer is not the point of the Homeless World Cup, but athleticism, drama, and pride are not lacking. If some of the participants use the game to keep their “devils and demons at bay,’’ others, Krystal among them, win fans with their achievements on the field. She knocks in three goals - the first hat trick by a woman in Homeless World Cup play - and celebrates the achievement as “something that no one can take away from me, no matter what else happens.’’
Because the event is designed to address the invisibility of homelessness, the Homeless World Cup begins with a parade of the athletes, and in Melbourne in 2008, the route ran through the heart of the city.
“Along the route,’’ Bidini writes, “parade-goers raised their hands to high-five the players, and almost every player was quick to return the touch. The moment was fat with irony. Having spent years being ignored or sneered at by passersby, to say nothing of suffering cruelty, beatings and, for those who weren’t here, death at the hands of police, miscreants, and thugs, the homeless were now being cheered in the fullness of the Australian sunshine.’’
It would be silly, if not criminally irresponsible, to suggest that soccer is always therapeutic, let alone redemptive, for the homeless or anybody else, and certainly not everything went as it was meant to go at the 2008 Homeless World Cup. More than one visiting player got “lost to the streets’’ in Melbourne. Players from Liberia, Zimbabwe, and Afghanistan disappeared during the tournament and then resurfaced to seek asylum.
But playing in the Homeless World Cup helped lots of the players from Canada and elsewhere to realize that they could be needed, respected, and recognized. Beyond that, their enthusiasm, determination, and joy rendered them not just visible, but triumphant. Playing soccer in the sun and high-fiving the curious crowds, the players from around the world presented a strong and joyful challenge for those inclined to dismiss homeless people as lazy, irresponsible, and self-destructive.
Bill Littlefield hosts NPR’s “Only a Game’’ from WBUR in Boston. He is a writer in residence at Curry College, and can be reached at email@example.com.