They may be homeless, but the world's at their feet

Paris gives pride of place to football's uplifting World Cup

Football teams from 48 countries have arrived in Paris for the ninth annual Homeless World Cup, which kicks off today. Sport, the organisers say, is the best method of rehabilitation. More than 70 per cent of players in previous World Cups have ended up getting jobs or houses or getting over addictions.

"We didn't believe the research at first, but we checked and checked," the Scottish joint-founder of the Homeless World Cup, Mel Young, said. "Being part of a team creates a change and allows people to participate in something international. You watch them standing proud and almost growing physically."

The teams are picked from local leagues and wear the national football strip. There are 48 men's and 16 women's teams taking part. Of tens of thousands who tried out for their national sides, 512 players made the cut. In Mexico alone, 17,000 people attended trials.

Many of the players use sport as a form of escape. "When I play football, I feel good," said Sylla Faouly, of the France team. "I don't have to get worked up any more. I am at ease."

Turning up to practice and joining a team works as a gradual socialising force. When a training session on the edge of Paris on Friday ended in an altercation, the French team was given a talking-to by its coach. "Do not pick up the ball as if you're going to throw it at someone," he said. "Remember, there are seven guys who've been left at home. You must respect the captain, and you must respect each other."

Sitting on the AstroTurf, the team looked solemn, but the dispute was resolved within a couple of minutes. It was a bit like group therapy. "There can be disagreeable moments, but we all talk about it afterwards," the coach, Arezti Saouli, said. "And they learn that when they do a bad tackle the whole group pays the price."

Each team plays to the end of the week-long competition, which is being held just under the Eiffel Tower. There are trophies (right) but no prize money. Each country foots the bill for its team – governments and sponsors (including Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur, above) make up most of the funding. The French sports ministry provided €250,000 (£220,000) to the project this year. "There is no money for housing but they can give for this," said Jérome Le Dû, who helps the French team with housing and social problems.

The draw was to take place last night at France's national stadium, the Stade de France, a coup for the Homeless World Cup. "People would normally walk across the road to avoid these people, now they are letting their kids get their autographs," said Mr Young.

One of Brazil's former women's players, Michelle da Silva, made it from the 2007 Homeless World Cup to selection for Brazil's actual under-20s ladies team in the South America Cup. But Mr Young prefers to tell a story about bumping into a bus driver who told him he'd been on the Scotland team and afterwards managed to get a job, a house and a fiancée. "His life had completely changed," said Mr Young. "He went from a world where he was totally excluded to one where he's included."

As with drug rehabilitation programmes, the football organisation encourages former homeless people to act as mentors to the teams. Mr Young, who also co-founded the Scottish Big Issue, puts the popularity of football down to its simplicity – just construct a couple of goalposts on a street and take it from there, he says.

He has little patience with the British government's response to the London riots. "If you construct a wall with rich and poor cheek by jowl, something will go bang," he said. "In a sense, the riots didn't surprise me. Politicians are so removed from reality, and now, all of a sudden, they're experts on social conditioning."

He advocates a policy of all-out sports. In Rio de Janiero, for example, authorities close off a motorway every Sunday to make room for various different sports. "It's a very practical way of doing things," he said. "Reclaim the area for the people, give an identity to neighbourhoods. These kids we've been seeing as the devil incarnate – when they're kicking a ball around, they're just kids."

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