Ten years on, the Homeless World Cup is still helping to change peoples lives

Ten years on, the Homeless World Cup is still helping to change peoples lives
The Daily Record, by Samantha Booth
20.04.11

It is 10 years since Mel Young and his friend came up with the idea for the Homeless World Cup over a beer.  They were looking for a way to bring together people from around the world and thought of using the international language of football.

From the idea of a friendly between the homeless of Scotland and Mel’s friend Harald Schmied’s native Austria, it grew into a pioneering event.  A total of 18 countries took part in the first competition in 2003.  A Scotland team won the trophy in the Danish capital Copenhagen in 2007.
 
Now the organisation have teams in 75 countries, with more than 30,000 people taking part in football training schemes and play-offs to reach this year’s competition in Paris.  Of those who have previously taken part, 97 per cent say the experience has had a positive impact on their life.  Almost 80 per cent say they have made changes to their lives as a direct result of involvement. In Mexico, 4300 homeless men have applied to try out for this year’s team.

To qualify to take part, all they have to show is that they are committed to turning their lives around.  Homeless World Cup president Mel, who also co-founded the Scottish Big Issue in 1992, explained its origins, saying: "I was at an annual conference for street papers from around the world. They were great because people would get really energised and sit up until three or four in the morning exchanging ideas and inspiring each other.

"In 2001, we were at the conference in Cape Town. At the end of it Harald and I were drinking a beer and talking about how fantastic it all was.  But we noticed there were no homeless people at the conference and wondered how we could involve them.  After a bit of discussion, we realised that football was an international language.  I said some of the guys working for the Big Issue in Glasgow claimed to have a football team so they could be Scotland, he said there was one that could be Austria and we decided they could play each other in a game.  Then we drank more beer and, by the end of the evening, we had invented the Homeless World Cup.  The difference was the next morning we decided to actually do it. Over the next 18 months we worked it all out and held the first competition in 2003."

Mel and Harald had wanted to find a way of bringing homeless people from around the world together in the hope it would encourage and inspire each other.  What happened at the first Homeless World Cup went far beyond anything they could have hoped for.  Mel said: "We played on the street, typically in the main square, with eight in a team, four on four off. We got to Austria and thought it was going to work – but we didn’t know to what extent."

"All the guys were there in their country’s strips and for us three amazing things happened.  "First of all, the players changed beyond all recognition.  It was incredible – you could see them growing in themselves and standing taller as they sang their national anthem.  In many ways, these guys are better ambassadors for their countries than professionals, given where they come from.  Then there were the crowds. The stands were always full, the games were exciting and there was loads of cheering.  These were the same people who would have crossed the road the day before to get away from homeless people and they certainly would have never let their children near them.  "

"But all of a sudden the players became stars, who were signing autographs.  Audiences who come and watch these games will never look at homeless people in the same way again.  And then the third change was in the media.  The world’s media were all there and, for once, we had 100 per cent positive coverage. It was amazing."

For Mel and his fellow organisers it was crucial to ensure that the football contest wasn’t the end of the work that had been started.  The good news was that nearly 80 per cent of those involved came off drugs and got jobs thanks to the Homeless World Cup programme.  Mel said: "It was like a fairytale and we actually thought it couldn’t be right because solving homelessness is not that simple. But, in fact, it works because it is really simple.  We have one partner in every country and they work with homeless people on the street throughout the year, using football as a way of encouraging them to get off the street.  From there, they get involved and get a bit of identity, possibly get selected to represent their country and then they come to this one big event, which is really a celebration of all the hard work."

Since then, the ever-growing success of the Homeless World Cup has continued. Some players have even been signed by professional clubs.  But perhaps more importantly, Mel knows of hundreds of success stories from around the world of men and women, as there is now also a scheme for the girls, who have been given their lives back thanks to football.
 
Former Scots player David Duke went on from his experience at the Homeless World Cup to running the Scottish side of operations as chief executive of Street Soccer Scotland.  Mel recently got on a bus in Edinburgh only to realise he was being driven by a former Scotland player, who told him that he had a job, a home and was about to be married.

He also recounts the tale of a security guard who worked at America’s World Trade Centre who, thanks to running late, narrowly avoided being caught up in the 9/11 terrorist atrocity.  But he was left without a job, which eventually led to homelessness.

Through taking part in America’s street soccer programme, though, he was picked to play as goalkeeper for the USA.  A random attack just days before the trip left him battered and bruised and he took to the field in sunglasses and bandanna.  But his larger-than-life personality proved such a hit with the crowds that children were soon copying him.  With his self-esteem boosted, he got a job soon after his return to America.

Mel, who is talking about the success of the Homeless World Cup at the Scottish Social Enterprise Fair today, said: "Football is the door for these people back into society.  There is a shift in their perceptions.  Black people realise that white people can be homeless. Others realise there are others worse off than themselves.  Most importantly though, is that they all come away with raised self-esteem because without that they self-sabotage.  Funnily, people from Scotland don’t seem too impressed with what the Homeless World Cup has done but in other places it is massive."

I think it is just a Scottish thing that we don’t get too impressed by things. We don’t let people get above themselves, which is a good thing, but sometimes we need to celebrate things more.  And we have social enterprise in our genes in Scotland so we should be taking the opportunity we have now to make the most of the possibilities available to us to make things better.  That’s what I am going to be telling the coalition."

To find out more about this year’s Homeless World Cup click on www.homelessworldcup.org