Human Rights

I co-founded a homeless world cup: I know sport can change the world

A soccer ball is seen as teams from Portugal and Russia play during the Homeless Soccer World Cup in Edinburgh, Scotland July 23, 2005.

Image: REUTERS/Jeff J Mitchell

Mel Young
President, The Homeless World Cup
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I love sport. I was glued to the television earlier this year as I watched the Olympics and the Paralympics in Rio. The Games were a huge success and the performance of the global athletes was inspiring.

While I marvel at these performances, sport isn’t just for high-performing athletes – sport is for everyone, and it has the power to create lasting change. As the co-founder and president of the Homeless World Cup, I know that first-hand.

How a football gets people off the street

Homelessness is everywhere. Travel to any city in the US – still the richest country in the world – and you will see homeless people sleeping on benches and in doorways.

In a world with huge amounts of wealth, this is outrageous. As human beings, we are ingenious. We have sent rockets to the moon, invented the internet and developed driverless cars, yet we haven’t been able to ensure everyone has a roof over their heads.

But if we put our mind to it, we can end homelessness. And sport can show us the way.

The Homeless World Cup is a great example of how a simple initiative can change the lives of thousands of people using a ball.

Lisa was homeless in the US. Martin was living on the streets of Cape Town. Sean was staying in a homeless hostel in Dublin. Eman was roofless in Indonesia. Jody was homeless in Scotland. Lyndon was unemployed in Grenada.

They lived hundreds and thousands of miles away from each other but they all had two things in common – they were homeless and they trained to represent their country at the Homeless World Cup.

The Homeless World Cup, an Edinburgh-based organization, has a very simple model: we work in 74 countries, with a partner based in each of them. Our partners take to the streets to meet homeless people and ask them if they want to play football – or soccer, for our American friends. They usually say yes.

Then we go to a place nearby and just start playing. The beauty of football is that it is easy to involve people. You can play 2-a-side or 20-a-side and you can play anywhere – in the street, in a park, in an office. And you can be of any standard. You can be big, small, really good, really bad, old, young, male, female – it doesn’t matter because the game allows you to fit in no matter what.

We ask people to come back regularly. We build a routine. We play games and create championships. We use our imagination. Football is the centre of everything and everyone is equal, but we are using it to change people’s lives.

More than a football competition

Once a year, we have an international championship somewhere in the world, with players chosen to represent their countries.

We take over a city centre for a week and we build a street soccer stadium. Matches last 14 minutes and they are very fast-paced and exciting. Entrance is free and thousands of people turn up to watch. Our biggest crowd so far was in Mexico City, where we got 168,000 spectators in a week.

Players are of very different standards, and we create a system of plate competitions where teams find their own level. If you lose at the Homeless World Cup, you don’t go home. One team will win the main trophy but everyone is a winner. Just like in mass marathons, whether you are the front or the back, you get the same medal. It is competitive but inclusive.

Image: Alex Walker/Homeless World Cup

The players can only come once, because the whole ethos of our programmes is about making an impact and moving on. And that’s what most of the people involved have been able to do – move on and build better lives for themselves.

Nearly 90% of the people involved have changed their lives completely – got houses, found jobs or come off drugs. They are heroes. Many have come back to their different projects and they are now coaches or managers. They are real leaders who are creating genuine social mobility. Add that to the banks of volunteers around the world who are using the simple international language of football and you can see how a movement is growing.

Participants at the 2016 Homeless World Cup in Glasgow Image: Alex Walker/Homeless World Cup
The human faces behind the numbers

The annual event has been held in different cities around the world every year since we started in 2003. This year alone, over 100,000 were involved in our programmes. We have touched the lives of over 1 million since we started.

But if you really want to see how sport can change people’s lives, forget about the big figures, and focus on the human side. Remember Lisa, Martin, Sean, Eman, Jody and Lyndon? They’re no longer homeless. They all have jobs and homes, and they will all tell you that football gave them the push they needed to move from a world of darkness into a world of light. Football had changed them from being an anonymous statistic into a human being with a name.

We need to recognize sport as the agent of change it can be. Yes, let’s look up to and be inspired by well-paid megastar athletes. But let’s use that inspiration to involve as many people as possible and change lives along the way.

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