The Homeless World Cup

Last month, 500 street-dwellers from 48 countries came to Cape Town to play football: on the field, competition was intense; off it, scallies from Liverpool found common ground with the dispossessed of Zimbabwe. Patrick Neate reports from pitchside at the Homeless World Cup.
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The Independent Online

It's a rainy Monday morning in September and, on Cape Town's Grand Parade, Lee Sharpe, star of Celebrity Love Island, purveyor of the notorious "Sharpey shuffle" goal celebration, and also, don't forget, a former Manchester United and England winger, is kicking off day two of the fourth Homeless World Cup. Where yesterday the temporary stands in the temporary compound around the temporary "street soccer" pitches (tennis court-sized mosaics of thick, rubbery matting) thronged with enthusiastic locals enticed by the weekend sun and, no doubt, curiosity; now, there's nobody here but the opening game's two teams (Hong Kong and Kazakhstan), assorted officials and Sharpey. And a cynical hack, of course.

Sharpey, immaculately turned-out in ex-pro casualwear, is cajoled on to the pitch for some impromptu keepy-uppy among the puddles. Looking like he's come straight from the golf course (which, it transpires, he has), he appears somewhat bemused. Then again, so do the players who don't seem to recognise Sharpe for the maestro of reality TV he actually is - anyone fearful of the creeping ubiquity of celebrity culture might be relieved to know that Sharpey's fame doesn't extend to the homeless of Almaty.

Keepy-uppy over, Sharpey is happy to pose for pics, sign autographs and discuss his mission. Turns out he's not just here for the golf and the Homeless World Cup but to discuss the establishment of Lee Sharpe Soccer Camps™ in South Africa.

"So, Lee, is this about finding professional footballers of the future?" Sharpey's expression is blank and mutely begs a prompt. "Or is it about using football to promote social inclusion?"

"Yeah," Sharpey says. "It's that one. It's social."

So, there you are then. The first game kicks off behind us. Seven minutes each way, four-a-side, with rolling substitutions, the action is fast and furious. It's all a bit too fast and furious for Hong Kong who are overwhelmed by the skilful Kazaks. They're clearly a team to watch and it's no surprise when they run out 8-1 winners. Their best player - already nicknamed "the Kazakhstan Zidane" - may not know Sharpey but he does a mean Cruyff turn.

Minutes later, across Grand Parade, outside the Homeless World Cup compound's high perimeter fences, a shabbily (omega) dressed Capetonian is arguing with four policemen in Afrikaans. Spotting the aforementioned cynical hack, he comes over, cursing furiously. "Are you a journalist?" he snarls. "I'm from right here in Cape Town and I'm homeless and the cops are telling me that I can't stay here. I only want to watch the homeless football, man. It's not bloody fair! You should write that down!"

"OK."

That afternoon I meet with Mel Young, president and co-founder of the Homeless World Cup. A grey-haired, middle-aged Scot, Mel looks more than a little knackered. But, there's still a twinkle in his eye.

"I'm sure you're a bit cynical," he begins good-naturedly. "I would be if I were you. I was a journalist myself, remember. You're thinking, 'Why use all these resources to bring 500 homeless people from around the world to Cape Town to play football? Why not use that money to build homes?' That's what you're thinking, isn't it? That's what I'd be thinking."

"Right."

"But just try to remember that there are 500 different homeless stories here and every one of them is worth hearing. Keep an open mind."

"Right."

Sayeed Reza, 19, Afghanistan: "I am from Kabul but I was born in Iran. During the war with the Soviet Union, my parents moved to Iran and I only returned to Afghanistan three years ago. I went to school in Iran but my family were struggling to support themselves so they left for Afghanistan before me. I followed later but, since I got back, I have never been able to find them and I don't know where they are.

"Now, I mostly live with my cousin who is a labourer. He doesn't make much money but he tries to support me somehow. All that I can think is that I have to complete my education and improve my life. I shouldn't be homeless and I don't want to go back to Iran because I'm Afghan. They don't accept me and I have a lot of problems there. I need to be an active person in my own society.

"After the Taliban regime, life is getting better. But it's not a normal life and we're all very worried about the future. For example, the security situation in Kabul is better than anywhere else but it's still not secure. In the suburb where I live there is a rocket or a suicide bomb every single day.

"I thought about coming to Cape Town when I was in Kabul but it's much better than I imagined. The Afghan team are very friendly with all the others and every night we divide up and you'll find us; one with Chile, one with Norway, one with England - talking and laughing. But my favourite is Paraguay... and it's not just because they've got girls on their team."

The Homeless World Cup was dreamt up not far from here; in a bar in Camps Bay, just the other side of Table Mountain. It was 2001 and Mel, co-founder of The Big Issue Scotland, and Harald Schmied, editor of the Austrian equivalent, Megaphon, were shooting the breeze at the end of a conference organised by the International Network of Street Papers. The conference had, Mel says, been a good one. Nonetheless, they were bemoaning the fact that it had only been attended by directors, editors and founders - none of the homeless themselves.

"We considered an exchange of newspaper sellers but immediately ran into problems of visas, employment law and language. So, then we hit on the international language of football. I know it sounds like a cliché but, as you can see, there's something in it. I told Harald that some of our homeless vendors had the semblance of a football team. And he said the same. So I said, 'Why don't we do a bit of work with them and we'll be Scotland and you can be Austria? And we'll play each other and Scotland will win because we never win anything.' And Harold said, 'No, Austria will win because we never win anything.' It was just a bit of a joke really. But a couple of beers later we'd invented the Homeless World Cup."

The first tournament was held in Graz in 2003 and, amazingly, 18 teams took part. Amazingly, Austria managed to win nonetheless. In 2004, 24 teams took part in Gothenburg. In 2005, 27 teams took part in Edinburgh. Both were won by Italy (precursors to their German triumph, perhaps). In 2006, there are 48 teams in Cape Town and Mel finds himself at the head of a gargantuan logistical undertaking. No wonder he looks knackered.

In fact, though, the structure is pretty simple. As Mel continually reiterates, "It's all about partnerships." The Homeless World Cup is approached by (and itself identifies) homeless charities from each nation, evaluates their work and then lends them the support they need (whether planning, organisational, financial, or all three). "The tournament is just the visible tip of the iceberg. The real work goes on the rest of the year. More (omega) than 10,000 players were involved in the selection process that concluded in the 500 that are here. You know, the project manager from Liberia is talking about potentially involving 200,000 young people but they haven't got any footballs. What do we do about that? To me, it's all about how you look at it. Some people would say, '200,000 young blokes, what do we do with them?' But you can also say, '200,000 young blokes? What a resource!'"

So it is that there are Liberian former child soldiers here, orphans of the Rwandan genocide and even, in the case of one Australian, a victim of online romance...

Brian Maher, 25, Australia: "I was working as a security guard in Perth when I fell in love over the internet with a woman in Melbourne. I moved there to be with her but I never actually met her. To this day, I haven't met her.

"I called her when I arrived and she was, like, 'I totally forgot that you were coming.'

"I was, like, 'OK, can we schedule to meet?'

"And she said yes. But she made all these excuses - that she works late, things like that - and it got to the stage where I turned round and told her to forget it.

"All my money had been pretty much spent on getting on over to Melbourne so I ended up living in Flinders Street train station. I couldn't ring my parents because, before I left, they'd said, 'She's probably not going to meet you and you'll probably end up living on the streets.' So I didn't want to turn round and say, 'Hey, guess what, guys? You were right and I'm an absolute dickhead.'

"But I couldn't live in the station for ever so I got myself into crisis accommodation which led me to find The Big Issue which led me to find my self-confidence again. And, since then, I haven't looked back. People look at the homeless and see them begging or going through garbage and think, 'They're weak.' But the truth is we're probably stronger than them because we know what it's like on the streets - we know what it's like to sleep in nine degrees at night and what it's like to sleep at 40 degrees as well. You have to be strong to do that. I've become wise since I lived on the streets. I'm more adaptable.

"But it's been an eye-opening experience being at the World Cup. A couple of days ago, we went to one of the townships and saw these little shanties and it nearly brought me to tears. We were told that some of the buildings they live in house up to 20 people. I couldn't imagine having to sleep there one night! But what surprised me most was the attitude people had. I expected them to be really sad and everything but they were really upbeat. No matter how bad their lives were, they had this amazing ability to handle it. They were adaptable. Like me."

For the record, Mel's answer to his own question - why use all these resources to bring 500 homeless people from around the world to Cape Town to play football? - is, briefly, as follows. He argues, first, that the Homeless World Cup raises the profile of homelessness and, therefore, makes the work of its partner organisations ever easier and, second, that it has a remarkable effect on the self-esteem of the participants.

"A lot of these guys are more used to being spat at than cheered," he says. "It's amazing the difference support can make. Psychologicially, being homeless usually means that you're not in a good place at all. So part of the skill in taking people out of homelessness is to work out ways of raising self-esteem and confidence. It's particularly difficult to shift young males. Sometimes it seems as if it's impossible to get them interested in anything.

"For example, I once organised a project with a local college. I went to a group of homeless guys and asked them what they wanted to do. They said they wanted to train as car mechanics and in computing. Ten people. OK. Agreed.

"So what happens? First week, four people turn up, next week, two people, and the next week, none. So I go back to the guys - I'm always quite frank - and say, 'That was really embarrassing: we asked you what you wanted to do, when you wanted to do it, got the whole bloody thing set up and you don't even have the manners to turn up.' And they were all, like, 'Thanks. But, you know, I was never going to pass. It was never going to work for me.'

"There are two points about this. First, their confidence is totally gone. But also, they're just living day to day so they need something immediate. What about football? If you go along to see them with a football and say, 'Do you want to play?' And they say, 'Yeah.' And you say, 'When?' And they say, 'Now.' You're away..."

Mel's logic seems indisputable when applied to the Western teams. But what about the rest? Is there really any equivalence between all the different experiences that might make "homeless" any kind of useful label? Bluntly, is there any value in bracketing together an unsocialised former junkie (omega) from England and, say, a Zimbabwean kid whose house was flattened as part of the government's Operation Murambatsvina? That kid doesn't have self-esteem issues, he's got resource issues.

Bernard Nyabasa, 24, Zimbabwe: "I am from Hatcliffe, the area that was affected by Operation Murambatsvina in July 2005.

"The operation started in the town. We didn't know that they were also going to come to the residential settlements to drive people away. When the police came, they were armed with guns, battle sticks, armoured cars, and they just told the people to take their possessions and get out. And then they started destroying the houses. If you didn't do what you were told, they just bulldozed your house down.

"They took us to Caledonia Farm where they said they would give us new stands [plots of land]. But, after a month, they just took us back but we had no houses. Now my mum and dad have returned to the rural area and I am living with my uncle - 10 of us living in a three-roomed house.

"The only source of power we have is firewood. The only source of water is shallow boreholes. They say that the water was tested and is clean, but how can you have a toilet at the upper end and have the well on the downside, it doesn't make sense. That water cannot be safe. The situation is not good. People get ill, especially when it's raining. Now they have improvised a small clinic but it cannot meet the demand.

"There are no jobs so we depend on assistance. Every month we get bulgar, maize meal, cooking oil and lentils from the WFP [World Food Programme]. What else can we do? For an average family of four, you need about 70,000 of the new currency to live at par level. Even the civil servants only receive 25,000 per month so what can we do?

"I have O levels and A levels and I am studying for my ACA accountancy diploma at the University of Zimbabwe. I was supposed to write my exams but then there was Operation Murambatsvina. Right now, I can't afford to write my exams due to the foreign-currency crisis in Zimbabwe. Everything is expensive! Tuition fees, books, even the commute to college - everything is damn expensive!

"My only dream is to become a certified accountant. Unfortunately, sometimes circumstances don't allow you. But I want to finish my studies, find work, help my parents and help my people. There are a lot of people suffering in Zimbabwe. I wish I could help them but I can't, because I don't have the resources."

"Of course we need different strategies in Africa and South America," Mel says. "In Europe, if you can only get the individual to connect, there are usually mechanisms in place to help them. But in Africa and South America we have to create social enterprise - socially sustainable projects around this competition. It's not about charity. I don't believe in charity.

"So today we announced the ball-making legacy, setting up a stitching operation in one of the townships. It'll create 20 jobs for homeless people and they'll learn how to do stitching. We give them a confirmed order for their first consignment and then we'll help them to develop and market it and build a little business. My idea is that you build from the bottom up, creating micro-connections. So you have the mother of one of the workers providing the food; that kind of thing. That's another job created and you're circulating the money all the time, within that community.

"I know it's only 20 jobs and, in the general scheme of things, that's nothing. But it's better than no jobs. I don't know. Maybe we can do something similar in Zimbabwe. Maybe the boy you're talking about can run the accounts. I don't know. But it has to be about enterprise and partnerships."

Mel is beginning to sound somewhat exasperated. It's partly the constant questioning but mostly, he claims, simply his desire to go and watch some football.

Back at pitchside, the tournament's reaching its latter stages and hotting up. For all my doubts, the crowds have returned with the sun and the atmosphere is one of good-humoured frenzy. The games pinball this way and that and so do the rumours - rife, ribald and often pretty funny.

Apparently the Irish lads, amply financed by the Football Association of Ireland, have been enjoying the Cape Town nightlife a little too much (unconfirmed). Apparently a couple of the European homeless teams have complained about the quality of their accommodation (unconfirmed). Apparently the Americans turned down a "peace match" with the Afghanistan team (unconfirmed). Apparently the all-conquering Russian team is entirely made up of pros (unconfirmed). Apparently Scottish player Laura Graham and South African Daniel Willeman have fallen head over heels in love (confirmed, (omega) it's made the front page of all the Cape Town papers). Apparently an Independent on Sunday journalist has had two mobile phones nicked in the course of one day (confirmed, me).

But, mingling with the crowd and players, there are two truths that you can't escape. The first is the unfettered, joyful exuberance of all those taking part. The second is that the stories every player has to tell are as heartbreaking and unique as each other; whether it's American Mario Salazar, 40, who dropped out of society two decades ago because he "didn't like the unkindness in the world" or Ugandan, Hannington Ojok, 20, from the Koch Goma refugee camp in the war-torn north of that country. Hannington tells me that he wants to go to university but feels that he's too old for more exams. When I laugh at that suggestion, he exclaims, "Serious! Where I come from, life expectancy is 45. I have already lived half my life."

It's only as the tournament draws to a close that I catch up with one of the England boys. Paul Smith is an engaging 25-year-old from Liverpool. He had problems with the police when he was younger but now is looking forward to a career as a football coach. "This has really been an experience," he says quietly. "If you're homeless in England, you have a hell of a lot of support but you just ignore it. You wouldn't get the Africans turning down the opportunities I have."

Smith cheers up, however, when the conversation turns to the subject of Lee Sharpe. "I had a meeting with him last night," he gushes. "He pointed me in so many directions; put me in touch with so many people. He even gave me his mobile phone number when he found out I play golf. So we're going to try and get together and have a game some time. What a fantastic bloke. Fantastic!"

Turns out I was wrong about Sharpey too.

The final of the fourth Homeless World Cup is between Russia and Kazakhstan. The Kazak anthem is hardly inspiring stuff but, as it blares out of the tinny sound system, the packed temporary stands in the Grand Parade rise in respectful silence. On the pitch, the Kazakhstan Zidane's chest is swelling. The whole team have tears in their eyes and their hands clasped to their hearts when the music fades and dies and the crowd erupts in cheering.

Who won? Who cares?

If only all football tournaments were like this.

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