“I’m shell-shocked…” Stuart Melvin looks up to the grey sky above Edinburgh airport and smiles. Sunburnt, knackered and elated, he speaks for every one of his seven teammates as he sets foot back home after he received the summit that every sportsman dreams of. On Aug. 5, in Copenhagen, he won the Homeless World Cup.
“It was just amazing, life-changing. The best time ever,” says teammate Alan Wilson. He’s got all the reason in the world to be excited.
Allowing just 36 goals to more than 100 scored, Wilson was part of the team which won 12 out of 13 games over the course of an intense seven days in Denmark. “You know, me and the boys said it must be fate,” he says. The team we had was so tight.”
Some naysayers have protested that in a just world such an event would not exist. However, homelessness is a fact, and the sheer size and success of the Homeless World Cup -- in which players are no longer statistics on a government check sheet but talented men and women with a challenging but exciting future ahead of them -- speaks for itself.
Amid the high-octane excitement of the Homeless World Cup, so big now it is supported by giants Nike and draws stars such as Eric Cantona, it is sometimes easy to forget the gravity of what these hundreds of players from nearly 50 nations have lived through. For the players, Scots included, coming to the cup and playing represents the culmination of an effort to stabilize their own lives.
In Denmark, just outside the pitches where all the excitement, heartbreak and jubilation of the Homeless World Cup is taking place, there are groups of rough sleepers who are still battling to get together enough food to keep going. The Danish team, brought together by the Ombold street soccer league, recognize their problems all too well. Most of them were sleeping rough not too long ago. “For me it was when I wasn’t taking responsibility for my life,” says goalie René Bo Nielsen. “I had a drug problem, so all the bills weren’t paid. It started small, and then it got bigger, bigger, bigger and I was on the street.”
Frank Clifforth, the player who designed the logo for the Nike-produced T-shirts for this year’s tournament, had a similar experience. “It started with alcohol,” he says, “and ended with heroin.” Clifforth, explains Tina Juul Rasmussen who is Ombold’s press officer, actually “died,” so doped up he didn’t realize his house was on fire. He was revived in hospital but it wasn’t until several weeks later that he realized what he was doing to himself.
All of the players say they felt Danish society looked down on them, but have turned their lives around through playing football. “We were nothing,” says Clifforth, “but now with the Homeless World Cup we are local heroes.”
The problem remains for the people outside the pitches whether it’s behind Copenhagen’s town square, in the favelas of Brazil or in the hostels of Scotland. While vast percentages of former Homeless World Cup players attest to the experience changing their lives -- nearly 80 percent of players surveyed after the 2005 event said they had found jobs, homes or entered training -- the challenge now must be for the event to spark a change for homeless people everywhere, with or without a ball.
After shaking hands with Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik, the real event gets going. Scotland is immediately on the attack in a match against Poland, and the Scots score early goals. Refusing to back down in the face of the much larger team, one player took a fall and looked in real pain, but the crowd’s applause pulled him up and soon Scotland was back in control. Thanks to their greater skill, the Scottish dominated throughout.
“It was in the bag,” says Paul Smith, who was named best player of the tournament.
Top scorer Frank Brodie gives a massive grin as he leaves. “Words can’t describe how good I feel,” he says.
Reprinted from The Big Issue in Scotland
By Laura Kelly and Clare Harris, The Big Issue in Scotland
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