Thousands of homeless people in 70 countries are currently getting off the street to take part in football training activity with the aim of being selected to represent their country at the annual Homeless World Cup which takes place in Poznan, Poland from August 10.
Last year, 103,000 homeless people took part in programmes. And the numbers are sure to increase this year. Teams representing 48 countries will play in the men’s competition with 16 teams in the women’s event which runs over eight days.
The key objective of the Homeless World Cup is all about impact with a huge percentage of the players changing their lives forever by finding homes and jobs, coming off drugs and alcohol and going to college. Many stay within the sports industry by gaining coaching certificates. The Homeless World Cup is much more than just an annual event – it is about intense activity throughout the year as homeless people transform their lives – a process which starts by simply kicking a ball.
Football is a brilliant way of involving people. It doesn’t matter what standard you are, anyone can kick a ball and enjoy the experience. I know people who have had serious drug problems change their lives completely through football. One young homeless man who had tried everything but failed to come off heroin was introduced to the football programme and within a relatively short period he had kicked the habit. When I saw him running around the football pitch I really couldn’t believe my eyes because I was sure that he would die. Football has real power to create genuine change. He now leads a normal life and has a job, a home and still plays football regularly.
We have built the Homeless World Cup organisation on people like these. The annual event is the showcase of the hard work which goes on throughout the year. It is a fast paced event which is full of energy and passion. Last year, in the heart of Mexico City, 168,000 people turned up to watch the event and every game was broadcast live on the internet.
The games are played on small pitches erected in the city centre and last 14 minutes each way. Each team has eight players with four on and four off. Matches are fast, passionate and usually very exciting with winning goals being scored with seconds to go. Each team will play an average of 13 games during the week. Over 300 games are played.
The teams vary in terms of ability and the Cup competition is constructed so that teams find their own level. In the men’s event, the competition splits into six sections of eight teams with each team competing for a Cup at their own level. Last year, Chile won the top trophy by beating the hosts, Mexico, in a thrilling final but Mexico triumphed in the women’s final by holding off Brazil in yet another compelling match. The cups were held aloft by the winning teams but at the Homeless World Cup everyone is a winner, and players all take home the same medal.
Players go back home as ambassadors and encourage other homeless people to become involved in football. They are an exemplar and are living proof of the transformational nature of football. They are genuine change-makers. Players are only allowed to take part in one Homeless World Cup because the whole focus of our activity is about transition. In Poland, later this year, a new group of players will represent their country.
National championships are now held throughout the year and these sometimes double up as trials. In Mexico, for example, events take place in 32 states followed by a national championship. In the USA, cities will play each other in Times Square in the centre of New York. Football is changing lives across the globe on a daily basis as more and more people are inspired to take part in the Homeless World Cup.
In 2014 the event will be held in Santiago, Chile and we have just announced that Amsterdam won the bid to host the Homeless World Cup in 2015. Forward planning is now essential for the organisation. Cities are now fighting each other to host this event which has really grown in reputation and standing since it first started in 2003. Bidding will soon be open for 2016 and 2017.
Our emphasis is always on the players but we have also drawn in support from volunteers across the globe who are essential to our work. Sponsors have been slower to come forward but now many are recognising the huge benefit they can derive from being associated with the Homeless World Cup. If you are interested please contact me (email@example.com). Together we can change the world.
Mel Young is president and co-founder of the Homeless World Cup, which he set up in 2003.