Kick start: How the Homeless World Cup is taking young men off the streets

This weekend sees the final of a sports tournament with a difference – a football World Cup for the homeless. Nick Harding reports on a venture that is getting young men off the bench, for good
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The glitz of Premiership football left The Cliff football training ground years ago. Once the HQ of Manchester United's 1999 treble-winning side, the Salford facility now reeks of faded glamour and past glories. Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, Keane and Schmeichel once stalked the corridors here but the Bentleys, waxed torsos and ostentation moved out years ago to a state-of-the-art sports science citadel 16 miles away.

The Cliff is now the base for the Manchester United Foundation – a soccer community scheme staffed by the unsung heroes of the football world. Multimillionaire, first-team players rarely venture to this outpost of the Man U empire where youth coaches and backroom staff hold cheap courses for local, underprivileged children. And it is here that, during the past six months, a chapter in one of the most remarkable stories in football has been quietly unfolding.

Six months ago, coaches at the foundation began a series of trials to select a group of young players to represent England. What makes these men unique is that each of them is, or has recently been, homeless. With an assortment of issues and problems ranging from gang culture criminality to drugs and alcohol misuse, they have now been honed and coached into a unit of well-drilled, disciplined team players who this week represented England in the Homeless World Cup in Paris; a global event which sees 64 teams from 53 nations compete in an annual, week-long soccer competition.

While only one team can win the top prize, the real success story of the initiative is the positive effect it has on the huge majority of players who take part – not just the lucky squad members who represent their countries but the thousands of homeless people who go for trials. Studies show that up to 77 per cent of participants say being involved in the event has improved their lives and given them renewed confidence, motivation and self-discipline – a figure organisers are quick to point out that makes the scheme more effective than many other, better-funded homeless initiatives.

The psychological benefits also extend to spectators at the well-attended annual tournaments, who invariably report a change in their perception of homeless people.

Team England coach Louis Garvey leaves his side in no doubt about what is expected of them. "I won't tolerate attitudes, I won't tolerate egos," he barks. It's an overcast day in August and six of the men who have been chosen to pull on the England shirt are huddled around Louis, listening intently. Along with discipline and a strict swearing ban, fair play and mutual respect are the underpinning ethics of the team. Louis has been involved in training the England side for the past nine years.

Each year, a new group of players arrives at The Cliff; troubled young men from the margins of society with dreams of soccer glory. Louis has taken these hopefuls to tournaments in countries such as Brazil and South Africa and seen many of them turn their lives around.

"Football is often in the news for all the wrong reasons but – and this sounds like a cliché – it can also change lives," he says. "I've been doing this for many years now and it always amazes me just how much of a positive impact the process has on the majority of lads who get involved. From the first trials to the end of the tournament I notice a change. Some of the players come in here at the start and they act like Jack-the-lad; they may use a bit of language or have an attitude, but we make them realise that they have to do things our way or they are out. If they want to be part of the England squad there are standards expected of them and if they don't follow those standards they will not play. The lure of the England shirt is usually enough of an incentive to focus them."

One of this year's squad who has already changed his life for the better is striker Troy Archer, who was in care as a youngster and lived on the streets for two years. He explains: "To be honest I never felt like the country helped me, but I still feel proud to pull on the England shirt. It's a big deal.

"When I was on the streets I didn't think I was going anywhere. I thought that was the life I had. It took football to turn my life around because it gave me self-determination. You can't expect people to turn your life around for you; there is help if you want it, but you have to make the changes in yourself first."

With support from the Homeless World Cup-affiliated charity, Airfootball, 22-year-old Troy, from north London, was given trials for professional side Leyton Orient and also received training as an electrician. Today, he no longer lives on the streets. He has his own home and regular work and plans to train as a youth football coach to carry on the Homeless World Cup legacy. "Being involved in this has transformed my life," he says. "My family is proud of me."

This year, 1,000 homeless people in the UK took part in the trials for the England side. In order to qualify, they must have been registered homeless at some point since September 2010. Only eight players were selected to take part in the four-a-side tournament in Paris, the final of which takes place tomorrow. When the football ends, the legacy of the tournament continues. Projects set up and funded by the organising body include a ball-making business in South Africa providing employment opportunities for local homeless people and a community football centre for the homeless in Brazil. Players also receive support and training grants from local partners affiliated to the event.

Homeless World Cup England Manager Simon Kweeday explains: "One of the goals this year was to involve more agencies and partners so those who don't get through to the final squad can still have the chance to go on and do positive things. In Manchester, for example, they can go on and do weekly football sessions. That continuity has been one of the key things."

Some of the individual success stories to come out of the Homeless World Cup are remarkable. Several former players have gone on to coach at a professional level or play pro and semi-pro football. At the time David Duke played for Scotland at the Gothenburg 2004 tournament, he was homeless and battling alcohol addiction following the death of his father. After the tournament he became a certified youth coach and eventually became manager of the 2007 Homeless World Cup-winning Scottish side. He became a homeowner and has now set up Street Soccer Scotland, an organisation which helps homeless people in Scotland.

Many players who have issues with drugs and alcohol find the lure of football replaces their dependencies. Squad member James Buckley, aged 21, from Crewe, has battled with drug problems. He explains: "I was using MCAT [mephedrone] and weed. When I was 19, I lost my mum and that affected me. I turned to drugs, alcohol and fighting. Being in the England side and going through the selection process has given me another focus. I am not taking any drugs at all now and I am trying to give up smoking to help with my fitness."

The tournament is staged on a shoestring budget with few sponsors. In Paris, 48 men's and 16 women's teams from all corners of the globe have descended on a purpose-built set of pitches near the Eiffel Tower. In all, more than 700 homeless people have been transported from nations such as Argentina, Cambodia, Namibia, Haiti, Kenya and South Korea. Many of the competitors will never have travelled on an airplane before and many have never had the luxury of sleeping in accommodation with electricity and running water. The tournament costs between €2-3m a year to stage, depending on the host nation – an amount less than the cost of holding a Champion's League match. The Homeless World Cup organisation relies on funding from sponsors such as Nike, and receives help from football clubs and governing bodies such as Uefa. Manchester United supports the England team and this year Tottenham Hotspurs have funded the Indian side.

The event was the creation of Mel Young, a social entrepreneur and the founder of The Big Issue in Scotland. He came up with the idea during a drunken conversation at a street newspaper conference in 2001, with Harald Schmied, who ran the street paper in Graz, Austria. The men were discussing ways to bring homeless people from different countries together, and hit on the international language of football. Two years later, the first Homeless World Cup was held in Graz itself, with teams from 18 countries and a £30,000 sponsorship deal from Uefa.

"Football seemed like the obvious choice because it is really simple," shrugs Mel. "You can create a game anywhere and it could be two-a-side or 20-a-side. All abilities and ages can play anywhere. It is very inclusive – it is an international language."

Mel has spent the past decade raising money to expand the tournament. Despite frustration at the lack of interest he often encounters, his passion for the initiative remains undimmed. He admits to "a little jealousy" over the way sponsors line up to be involved in the Fifa World Cup. "Homelessness isn't a sexy issue and we are hand-tied to some extent by the stereotypical view of what a homeless person is. If we could have just 1,000th of the World Cup pot of money we'd be very happy," he says. "This year 50,000 homeless people across the globe have been involved in the trials. We'd like to get more involved and that is why we need sponsors urgently."

Every nation has homelessness. In the US, there are around 3.5 million people living on the streets and studies show that each one of these costs the government $40,000 a year. As far as Mel is concerned, it is time to start taking the problem seriously. "I believe we are creating two worlds: the haves and have-nots," he says. "There is no greater example of this than the recent London riots, because when you have a divided society, eventually it goes 'bang'; not as in a socialist revolution, it goes bang in a really destructive, unplanned anger. At that point we need to look at ourselves and ask what sort of world and society we are creating. I believe very firmly that if you start to tackle problems like homelessness, in the process you can create a change."

The commitment of the six players training at the Cliff is not in doubt. Each of them views the chance to play for England as a huge honour. Twenty-eight-year-old Gavin Russell, from Worcester, says: "I was homeless for about seven months. When you get into that cycle it is difficult to get out of it. It affects your self-esteem, it is degrading. It's not something you want to discuss with people you don't know. They think if you live in a hostel you are either a drug addict or an alcoholic. I now have my own place and am working as a chef. Being the England goalkeeper is amazing. To be picked to represent my country is a huge boost."

His team mate, Salim Musa, aged 23 and from Birmingham, says the opportunity to play for England has been life-changing. "I ended up homeless because I had problems at home," he explains. "I was drinking and getting into trouble; I ended up in a hostel. Through the training, I've learnt to respect other players. I am now studying social science and I want to be a social worker and get involved in some kind of sports-based work."

The realisation that homelessness does not have to mean hopelessness permeates the team. When they return home next week, the England players may not return with a trophy, but they will have won something far more valuable – self-respect. As Salim explains: "I realise now that even if you are homeless you can still be someone; I am not a loser."