In 2003, Mel Young and Harald Schmied co-founded an organization to help homeless people leave poverty. As owners and founders of their own street newspapers, the two men were looking for a new and inventive way to help the homeless regain their confidence and control of their lives. Their solution was the Homeless World Cup, a soccer tournament played entirely by homeless people. Remembering the tactics they had learned running street papers (newspapers that homeless people sell on street corners in order to earn a living), Young and Schmied applied these strategies to their new soccer organization and it was immediately successful. Their idea of breaking the chain of misery that homeless people feel through sport enabled over 250,000 people to change their own lives.
Young and Schmied first met at a conference about street newspapers in the early 2000s. After a few discussions, they both realized that they could take their passions for helping the poor and the sport of soccer and bring them together through a new sports advocacy program. The Homeless World Cup was created to serve as an outlet for young men and women around the world who had nothing; the event would give these young people something to invest in and be proud of.
The first international tournament was held in Graz, Austria in 2003. 141 players attended, and a year later, 31 of them had landed full-time employment. By 2005, 77% of the participants from the previous two years had reported significant improvements in their lives. Success is measured tangibly- they had secured jobs, started education or training programs, broken their addiction to drugs and alcohol, and re-established relationships with their families. Their lives had improved because their situations had improved.
Over one billion people worldwide are living without a home, and the Homeless World Cup aims to reverse the trends of poverty and deprivation. Since its inception, the organization has spawned 70 national partner grass roots training programs in 70 countries, reaching over 30,000 young people. Once they are involved, these programs address the greatest problems facing homeless youth: housing, employment, and occasionally addiction. One group in Uganda, Girls Kick It, pairs soccer training with employment opportunities at a poultry farm, addressing its members’ immediate need for an income.
Players are recruited on the streets, through word of mouth or by advertising in street papers or at hostels and homeless shelters. Once they are brought together, players try out for their nation’s team at trials, and if selected receive coaching and training before representing their country at the World Cup.
Players can be either male or female, but must be over the age of 16 to join a team. Numerous grass roots organizations have started youth programs to include children younger than 16. Homeless World Cup participants must have been homeless at some point over the past year since the last tournament, or they must be a street paper vendor. Special considerations are given to asylum seekers and recovering addicts currently enrolled in drug or alcohol rehabilitation programs.
Eight players are allowed per team- four on the pitch during play and four substitutes. Each match lasts only 14 minutes, and is played on a smaller field than the standard size. Over 200 matches are played at each World Cup tournament, which lasts a week. Though they can play on a team only once, they do have the option to stay involved with the organization as assistant coaches for their country’s team when they are done.
To date, the Homeless World Cup has worked with over 250,000 homeless worldwide. The ages of participants and volunteers range from 14 to 65, but the majority of members are in their early 20s. 80% of players have been male, and 70% of participants annually report that their lives have been improved by the program.
64 teams participated in the tournament held in Paris 2011. The following year, 72 teams came to play. Over the past ten years, 12 players have gone on to become either semi-professional or professional soccer players or coaches. 94% of participants have said that the Homeless World Cup has had some sort of a positive impact on their lives.
This year, the tournament was held in Pozan, Poland. Brazil’s male team triumphed over steep competition to win the trophy. Mexico took the title in the female division. But it didn’t matter who took home the cup, because at the end of the day every homeless player who took the field had become a winner.
Sources: Homeless World Cup, Bettor Blog, So Sense
Photo: Homeless World Cup