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AFR: The Homeless World Cup Kicks Off

A Football Report: Soraya Soemadiredja, Jakarta.

Rio de Janeiro’s famous Copacabana is usually known for the beach bums and beauties, but this week, four years before Brazil’s Men’s World Cup hosting gig, it will be ‘home’ to teams from over 50 nations and territories who will compete in the 2010 Homeless World Cup to raise global awareness and “beat homelessness through football”.

Seven-a-side teams compete in 14 minute matches to determine the champion. However, football has long been a vehicle for many international development issues, this entire tournament has been less about the amount of goals scored than it has been to continue to raise awareness for issues of homelessness on the global scale as well as at the grass-roots. It seems a huge task: despite having a home as being a basic, inalienable right in many countries, according to the UNCHR an estimated 100 million people are homeless worldwide. In fact, in its own way, through the eight year run, it has already made an impact—perhaps not in terms of shirts sold and TV revenues, but in turning upside down the usually negative stereotypes of homeless and make a real difference in the lives of the participants, by helping them become leaders and allowing them to give back to their communities.

Independent grass roots organisations that reach out to vulnerable groups in society use football as a way out of homelessness; bringing together individuals struggling with dependencies, marginalisation and exclusion from society of those suffering from HIV/AIDS or other illnesses, former inmates trying to make a living after release, and a myriad other struggles that many of us do not have to face. While virtually no country in the world is left untouched by the issues of homelessness, the causes for it are as varied as the individual athletes. The criteria for eligibility to play in the tournament the individual has to have been homeless or vulnerably housed for the past year, or make a living primarily as a street paper vendor, or is an asylum seeker, people who have been made homeless due to political and social turmoil and instability, or is in dependency rehabilitation and has been homeless for the past two years.

Many see football as a second shot at life and a taste of the success they are capable of achieving, others use these organisations as a support system, where they can finding assistance and fellow individuals that are going through similarly harrowing and difficult situations without judging them, and some find it as a way to escape their problems, if only for a few hours, and give them happiness.

Since its inception in 2001 by Mel Young, co-founder of The Big Issue Scotland, and Harald Schmied, editor of Austria’s Das Megaphon, during an international street newspaper conference, to its very first kickoff in 2003 in Graz, Austria, and now, there has been a lot of support for this cause, such as Nike and UEFA’s “We Care” programme and the United Nations Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP) . Kicking It, a documentary on the Homeless World Cup directed by Susan Koch and Jeff Werner, is narrated by Colin Farrell and covers the lives of seven participants during the 2006 tournament. The movement has amassed many supporters, on the streets and personalities in sport and politics like Eric Cantona, Lewis Hamilton, and Margarita Zabala, Mexico’s First Lady.

Even so, it still doesn’t have the type of coverage which allows adequate and consistent funding and support, since most delegations are left to for themselves. Some teams have been fortunate to have great backers.  Tottenham Hotspur has agreed to a long-term partnership with the Indian team which will get them to Rio. Individuals, businesses and community groups, not the government, came together in order to raise all the money for the Canadian delegation to get to Rio. The Homeless World Cup organisation itself helped fundraise to send the Palestinian team to get to its first ever tournament.

Many teams went through some close calls to get to Rio. A day before the official kick off, the South African delegation had no idea whether or not they would get there. The year before, they had received part of their funding from the department of cultural affairs and sports, but this year, they were short of sponsors for the airplane tickets. Fortunately, a last minute sponsor stepped in and the team flew out to Brazil early Saturday morning. Namibia nearly didn’t make it due to funding either, but luckily the government came through for them and they’re now ready to make a splash on the pitch.

Some other teams weren’t so fortunate. Nigeria was a semifinalist of the last Cup and was preparing to fight for the top prize for the fourth consecutive year. Unfortunately, Vodavone, their primary sponsor, did not renew the contract for the following year, and this lead to the inability to raise the five million Nigerian naira required to travel to Brazil, dashing the hopes of eight men and women on the delegation.

And just like FIFA’s, this tournament is not immune from politics. The last time a team from Zimbabwe attended, it was in Melbourne in 2008. Most of the squad defected. The Italian government refused the delegation visas into the country for the Milan tournament the following year. The Zimbabwean coach did not prepare a team for Rio, but hope is on the horizon. The country has plans to qualify for the tournament in France next year.

Part of the difficulty of joining the tournament lies in the entry visa application process. For a lot of individuals from less developed countries, gaining entry to many parts of the world means providing proof of adequate funding from sponsors, and the incentive to return to their country of origin. This includes such things as work or family who can support them. To prepare for 2011, Zimbabwe’s plans include ensuring incentives for the athletes’ return, partnering with other organisations for income generation for the players.

Despite the notable absences, the teams that did make it this year will be sure to put on a spectacle. And who knows which stars will emerge? We’ve already had  Manchester United sign a player who went from the streets to the stadium, maybe this year we’ll have more similarly inspiring stories from the beaches of Brazil. But more than anything, the annual tournament is one part of a long-term endeavour to combat homelessness, one kick at a time.

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