Homeless World Cup co-founder hopes to bring social conscience and spirit to the top of Scottish sport
Daily Record, By Gordon Waddell
Few people understand how to harness the power of sport better than Mel Young.
To change the lives of the excluded, the marginalised, the addicted and the forgotten on the periphery of a supposedly civilised society.
Now he intends to bring that social conscience and spirit to the top of Scottish sport and embed it all in our national DNA.
Young is co-founder and president of the Homeless World Cup , which comes home to Glasgow in July.
He’s also the founder of the Big Issue in Scotland and will take over the reins of sportscotand as chairman in three weeks’ time.
A world-class social entrepreneur, he’s uniquely qualified in understanding hardship and how to overcome it, one success story at a time.
His twitter bio reads simply: “Yes, we can change the world if we want to.”
And he has, for thousands of people.
What he wants to do in his new role, though, is bring evolution rather than revolution to the body over-arching sport in this country.
To make politicians and government join the dots between sport and health and education. To build on a community programme that embraces participation for all, from the grassroots up.
But also to continue to build a world-class environment for world-class athletes.
The latter, by his own admission, is not his specialised field. A daily runner, he claims to have maximised his level at every sport he loved at “average”.
However, he understands fully the inspiration that elite achievement can bring and he’ll wring every last drop to reinvigorate the rest of the country.
As he prepares to welcome 64 teams from 52 countries to George Square this summer, he said: “This is how I know about the power of sport.
“The Homeless World Cup is a Scottish invention and has become global. It has made an incredible impact because we’ve used it to create change.
“We’re working with the most marginalised people in the world and we’ve got them off the streets, into jobs, off drugs, into houses. It’s just football that has made that possible.
“So when I bring that experience to sportscotland, if we can take the most marginalised people in the world and use sport to make lives better, we can do that anywhere and at any level.
“I’m a great believer in everything being connected up in terms of sport. There’s no difference between high performance and grassroots, they’re connected.
“Our elite performers inspire people – Andy Murray , Chris Hoy , Scott Brown whoever. They inspire young people and you create a system where you capture people at the grassroots.
“Some may go on to be champions but most will simply be involved in sport. And that involvement may be all it takes. It can enhance lives, but save them as well.”
Young’s passion and pride for the achievements of the Homeless World Cup are well placed.
Born from a beer-fuelled discussion in 2001 in South Africa with pal Harald Schmeid, on how they could change the world, their organisation has won awards, recognition and, more importantly, brought hope and meaning instead of despair.
Young said: “I have hundreds of examples. One guy was heavily addicted to heroin.
“He was always talking about how he was going to come off it. A lot of these guys do but they never can. It was going to end badly, he was killing himself – not consciously but still…
“We encouraged him to get involved in our Street Soccer programme then, three or four months later, I saw him again. I couldn’t believe my eyes – he was running about the pitch like a madman. And I thought: ‘Is that really the same guy?’
“He had become addicted to football, wanting to play two or three times a day, and was off the drugs.
“Another time I got on a bus in Edinburgh and the driver said hello, like he knew me. I looked at the uniform and didn’t recognise him but when he told me he used to be on the Scotland team it came back to me.
“He told me that after playing he’d got some training, got his licence, got a job, got a flat, got engaged – his life had completely turned around.
“Sometimes I get asked if we’ve had anyone go on to become a professional player. We have had one or two but that’s not the success story.
“The bus driver is the success story. He might be a bus driver all his life now, you never know, he might go on to own the bus company.
“The point is he has moved from a position of being totally excluded and marginalised and, through sport, he’s in our society.
“There are lots like that. It’s not Walt Disney, it’s not magical. They don’t go on to play for Real Madrid. But it’s real and it’s happening all over the world.
“Mexico are the holders of the Homeless World Cup. There are 20,000 guys and girls from 32 projects trying to get to Scotland.
“Coaches and volunteers are using the projects to get kids out of bandit country in the north of Mexico. And these kids are made into heroes.”
Young has already served seven years on the 13-strong board of sportscotland, the last three as vice-chair to Louise Martin, who now moves on to become the head of the Commonwealth Games Federation.
He said: “For me it’s about building on what’s already established. Where sport is going in Scotland is fabulous and it’s about keeping that going. I always believe you can do better.
“Obviously there are things in my DNA, like equality, looking at how poor areas of Scotland can benefit from sport, but sportscotland is already doing that anyway.”
One of the programmes inspired by the Commonwealth Games was the creation of 150
Community Sports Hubs in Scotland by 2016, using schools, local clubs and other facilities to create partnerships aimed at getting people active right across the social spectrum.
They’ve hit 153 with a £7.5m investment and now are aiming for 200 by 2020.
Young said: “The fact we’ve hit our target ahead of schedule is brilliant but it tells me we should be doing more.
“It’s about creating a pathway. Governments can get themselves into real silos – they put education in a box, sport in a box, health in a box.
“You get schools with great facilities with their doors shut and no-one using them. We want to encourage people to open gates and allow people to play.
“We’re getting round that now, understanding working together. To me it’s a no-brainer. Of course you’ll get healthier if you do sport.
“It’s the same in education – for example, if a kid does sport at lunchtime they’re much more attentive in the afternoon. We have to tell that story better.”
A lifelong Hibs fan, Young wears the tension of their current tightrope walk between misery and happiness well as he sits in sportscotland’s HQ in Glasgow’s east end the morning after his team’s 1-0 defeat at Stark’s Park.
The other thing he’s wearing well is a tie from the football team of his alma mater, Heriot Watt University.
He laughed: “I was never good enough to play for them but they gave me this when I went back to deliver a talk and it felt like a trophy!”
The former journalist will play a leading role in this summer’s World Cup in Glasgow before taking a back seat to concentrate on his new role.
He insisted: “I want us to have a well-oiled machine at sportscotland, delivering sport to a world standard.
“I want us to become a country where sport is in the DNA. I’m not sure we’re there yet but we will be.”