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Hope for the Homeless

November 10, 2009 – 7:10 pm4 Comments

HWC3By Keren Tuch

Problems these days need creative solutions.  If young Jews in the Diaspora are assimilating, let’s send them on a free, ten day tour of Israel to encourage Zionism and procreation.  If Palestinians and Israelis are fighting, let’s create a joint international AFL team to promote peace and harmony.  And, if there are homeless, marginalised and disenfranchised citizens of the world, let’s create an international soccer tournament to boost their self-esteem and motivation.  That’s exactly what social entrepreneur Mel Young thought (the latter idea, at least), and it brought the Homeless World Cup (HWC) to fruition.

The HWC, which began in 2003, is an annual competition where various nations compete for the title of street soccer champions.  In September, I was fortunate enough to volunteer at the HWC, hosted this year by the soccer-loving city of Milan. Forty-eight countries participated, from Kazakhstan to Poland to India.  Each nation that participates has a grass roots street soccer program at home, and the HWC is the highlight of the calendar.  The meaning of “Homeless” is quite broad, and encompasses people who have been homeless at some point in the last two years, as well as people who make their main income as a street paper vendor; or are asylum seekers; or are currently in drug or alcohol rehabilitation.  Whilst some countries like the Ukraine (who were victorious this year) send off an indestructible team; others, like Australia, send off a well-rounded, committed team with a strong sense of mateship, but who also happen to be less talented on the pitch.

HWC2

Now, before the skeptic in you starts to question the sense of allotting funds to this project instead of building houses, have a think about what the real issues are for homeless people. Building a roof over their heads would be appreciated, but it is as useful as giving a malnourished World Vision child an apple.  Sure, it’s a relief, but then what happens tomorrow? The issues of homelessness are complex and more often than not involve social issues (at least in developed countries anyway).  The official HWC website espouses, “the impact is consistently significant year on year, with 73% of players changing their lives for the better by coming off drugs and alcohol, moving into jobs, education, homes, training, reuniting with families and even going on to become players and coaches for pro or semi-pro football teams.” Money redistributed to simply providing a roof can not achieve these social changes.

From my experience of schmoozing with the players, coaches, managers and referees, the above statistic sounds about right.  There are those players for whom this tournament is merely a ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card, only to return to that ‘imprisonment’ after the games.  One young man who was representing Switzerland was an asylum seeker from Eritrea. His biggest obstacle in Switzerland was integration, which included struggling to learn proficient German, but more importantly, meant fitting in.  Whilst being a part of a team was great for his morale, and he bonded with his fellow Swiss competitors, he did not perceive that much would change upon return to Switzerland.  He would still be isolated, without a community and continuing to struggle to learn proficient German.

On the other hand, I met Japanese players who were shy and lacked self confidence at the beginning, but were crying at the end due to the love and affection showed by the rest of the players.  It had given one American woman who had troubles at home a sense of purpose and new community.  A Nigerian player participated two years ago and has since undergone training and now coaches the Nigerian League.  A young South African man found refuge from the streets of Cape Town and has since kept out of trouble by engaging in football.  Time and again, stories pour out from each country about how street soccer has made a positive difference in players’ lives, even if it is just motivation.  The camaraderie between teams is the antithesis of an under-sixteens netball game.  All the other teams support each other, even when they are in direct competition.  The Australian team, which won the award for fair play, was known for barracking for their opposition during the match, and always included the opposition in a post-match rendition of Waltzing Matilda.

HWC1Noticeably lacking in my eyes were Muslim countries, as well as Israel.  Afghanistan competed in last year’s HWC in Melbourne, and won the tournament, but they absconded after their victory and their title was rescinded along with a twelve month ban.  Female participation from these Muslim countries would also be refreshing, burqa or not.  Israel has plenty of citizens that fit the criteria of ‘homeless’, especially as more and more refugees from Africa seek asylum, and the division between the rich and the poor continues to expand.  Israel often has a stigma marked against it, and given the demonstrated camaraderie at the HWC, I suspect it is a great forum to curb this stigma, boost morale, and an opportunity for Israel to present itself beyond the confines of ‘the conflict’.  I have been informed that there will be a joint Israeli/Palestinian team at next year’s game in Rio, although I am hazy on the specifics.

Who knows, maybe sport will be the creative solution needed to solve some of Israel’s conflicts!

Keren Tuch is a Sydney-based physiotherapist, former Hineni madricha and intrepid world traveller.

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