April 20, 2011; Source: Daily Record | Ten years ago, Mel Young from Scotland and Harald Schmied of Austria were at a conference for street papers from around the world.  You know street papers, the newspapers sold by and often written by homeless persons, for example, Street Sense in Washington, DC and Real Change in Seattle.  Mel and Harald were having a beer at the conference in Cape Town, South Africa, and noticed that there were no homeless people at the conference about papers written and sold by the homeless. 

The two friends discussed football—soccer to us colonials—as the international language that could connect people from different countries, including the homeless.  According to Young, “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.”

In 2003, the first Homeless World Cup was held with 18 countries participating.  Today, there are homeless soccer teams from 75 countries, 30,000 homeless persons have been in training or playoffs this year.  In Mexico, 4,300 homeless persons applied for positions on this year’s team.  The qualification? According to the Daily Record, “all they have to show is that they are committed to turning their lives around.” 

Now the President of the Homeless World Cup, Young cites a number of discernable changes in the homeless footballers:  “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…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.”  Young says that some 80 percent of the players got off drugs and found jobs due to the Homeless World Cup. 

Do you want real inspiration?  Look at this piece about 20 homeless Nigerians selected by Street Soccer in Nigeria going through intensive training in preparation for the Cup tournament to be played in Paris later this year.  Go ahead, try not to be moved.—Rick Cohen