As the 2016 European Championships drew to a close in Paris on Sunday, just over 600 miles away in Glasgow another football tournament was well under way.
But while Portuguese players celebrated winning their nation’s first ever major trophy, in Scotland, hundreds of players were simply celebrating the chance to be there, playing in front of 1,000 people at Glasgow’s George Square. While multi-millionaires played one game of football, those who not so long ago had next to nothing played another.
It’s hard to imagine a more contrasting scene, but then again, it’s hard to imagine an international football competition quite as remarkable as the Homeless World Cup.
Now in it’s 14th year, the Homeless World Cup has grown in both size and stature since its inaugural tournament in 2003. This year over 500 players from 52 countries will descend on Glasgow for a week of football, celebration and inspiration.
The tournament will last for a week with the final taking place on Saturday 16 July. Every single match will take place on one of the three pitches that have been built in the centre of the city at Glasgow’s George Square. Temporary stands have been erected around the sides of each pitch, with each venue holding 1000 people. Entry is free and no tickets are required.
There is both a men’s and women’s competition, with both running concurrently. In the men’s competition 47 countries have been drawn across six groups, while in the women’s 16 teams have been split into two. The Homeless World Cup is unique in that, even though it is a knockout competition , every team will play the same amount of games.
After the group stages the tournament splits, into six levels for the men and two for the women. It means that, irrespective of ability, every team has a chance of winning a trophy.
However, at the start of the tournament all eyes are on the main trophy; the Homeless World Cup. In Amsterdam last year, both men’s and women’s competitions were won by Mexico. This year’s hot favourites include Brazil, Chile, the holders Mexico, and, obviously, the hosts Scotland, for whom winning the World Cup is nae bor ( no bother ) having previously won in 2007 and 2011.
But of course at the centre of the Homeless World Cup is the issue of homelessness itself. 100 million people across the world are currently homeless. In Scotland, recent figures published by the Scottish government show that figure is around 30,000, although that figure is decreasing.
To be eligible to play at the Homeless World Cup, players must have been homeless at some point in the last year. Many are asylum seekers. Others are also currently in drug or alcohol rehabilitation centres. Every single player who has come to Glasgow to compete has their own personal story. There are literally hundreds of personal battles against adversity.
Hoping to be one of Scotland’s stars during the tournament is 37 year old Benyamin Aghaei, who arrived in Scotland from the Iranian capital Tehran in 2012. After a difficult start to life in Scotland, Benyamin was told about Street Soccer Scotland, an organisation that attempts to provide opportunities and hope to the homeless through football.
Benyamin decided to go along to one of Street Soccer Scotland’s weekly football drop-in sessions. It was there where he impressed selectors and Benyamin was called up to Scotland’s World Cup squad. His two goals in Scotland’s opening 8-4 victory over Hong Kong was an encouraging start, but for Benyamin the real encouragement is that the Homeless World Cup is a sign of better things to come.
Many therefore see the competition as the turning point of their lives. That despite going through some difficult moments, representing their country is the first step towards getting employment or further education. Football can also help players overcome social difficulties. Homelessness can lead to isolation but being part of a team can help build positive relationships and establish trust. Representing their country can give players a new sense of responsibility.
An example of this is 29 year old David McConnell from Northern Ireland. For a long time David battled with alcohol and drug abuse, but it wasn’t until he started attending Street Soccer drop-in sessions that he found the inner strength to overcome his struggles. After successfully trialling for the Northern Ireland team, David is now representing his country and hopes that the experience will drive him on to get full-time employment and to move away from Northern Ireland.
Indeed, the positive impact that the tournament claims to have on players in truly staggering; 94% of former players say the Homeless World Cup positively impacted their lives while 83% say they have improved social relations with family and friends. The organisation, which was co-founded by Mel Young and Harald Schmied, along with their national partners also claims to help 100,000 homeless people a year and estimates that they have helped over a million people since they began in 2003.
Year after year, the players at the tournament overcome adversity to make it to the World Cup, but this year there is one team that represents that more than most. Street Soccer United are a team of refugees living in Scotland, made up of players originating from countries such as Somalia, Senegal and Eritrea who have all been attending weekly sessions run by Street Soccer. It’s the first time that a refugee team has taken part in the competition.
The Homeless World Cup is simply a remarkable event. Using the power of football, they have made a difference to hundreds and thousands of lives and year after year they raise awareness in a way that makes people stop and take notice. The tournament once again demonstrates that football is more than just a game and is a shining symbol of its ability to inspire and unite.