The Homeless World Cup in Mexico City, October 2012. Photo: Danielle Batist

View of Zocalo Square, Mexico City. Photo: Danielle Batist 


Since my first involvement with the Homeless World Cup six years ago, I have been captivated by the event. The mission of the organisers, the spirit of the game, but most of all the courage of the players made me follow the extraordinary tournament around the world. Now in its 10th year, the Homeless World Cup has matured, and so have its players. But growing up inevitably means that some childhood innocence gets lost along the way.

From the sixth floor balcony café on the south side of the Zócalo square, the  pitches look impressive. Two bright green playing fields with large stands to fit a thousand people, behind that two full sized training pitches. To the left, a big media centre and a massive players home with table tennis and table football areas, lounge seats, dressing rooms and a fully equipped medical centre with X-ray machine. But the real pride of the event is the main pitch. Surrounded on four sides by huge sun-roofed 3,000 capacity stands and a VIP-area with private butlers, the arena is fit for the world’s superstars. Incidentally, there are some 450 of them around.

Never before did the Homeless World Cup attract so much attention. In the opening weekend alone, over 50,000 spectators cheer on the players; a figure that is known because of the plenty event staff present with clickers at each entry and exit point. Thousands more watch online via the live streams from each of the three pitches, which even include highlights and professional match commentary. Teams are greeted by dozens of fans as soon as they come off the pitch. Mothers place their children in the arms of players for a photo, teenage girls want signatures of all the men’s teams and even police staff stop their professional duties for a minute to have their picture taken when players walk past.

The participants, of course, are loving it. Over the years, almost all players I have interviewed talk about the stigma against them in their home country, and how hard it is to shake off. During every tournament, the crowd’s reaction boosts players’ confidence, but the sheer volume of this year’s audience overwhelms even the most cool and level-headed ones.

“It is very intense. I don’t speak Spanish but everyone smiles and cheers.They make you feel really popular”, says 21-year-old Dutch women’s team player Sterre Overvest. Namibian Rabiano Blokstaan (19), who lives in the largest slum of the capital Windhoek, agrees: “I feel like a star. It is crazy. We can hardly walk from the hotel to the pitch; so many people want my picture and my signature. I am thrilled. It is very different in Windhoek where I live. There, nobody cares about you.”

Interviewing  Rabiano Blokstaan from team Namibia at the Homeless World Cup, Mexico City, 11 October 2012

Interviewing Rabiano Blokstaan from team Namibia at the Homeless World Cup, Mexico City, 11 October 2012

The main reason the tournament is so popular is the huge publicity campaign fuelled by new corporate sponsor Telmex. Professional television ads run on the big channels, huge billboards fill most of the walls in the airport arrivals hall and press releases get published in many mainstream media. In previous tournaments, not even hotel owners around the corner from the pitch knew there was an event (Rio de Janeiro) and joggers in the park were completely unaware of anything inside the  stone-walled arena they ran past (Milan). In Mexico City, every barman and passer-by seems to know what is going on. “Oh, you are here for the homeless football tournament at Zócalo?”, the hotel receptionist asked me after checking in two business men. I couldn’t believe my ears.

The best thing about the widespread awareness of the event is that Mexican spectators really have embraced the Homeless World Cup. They cheer on each and every team and want photos taken with them all. In few other ways could you so effectively make people forget about backgrounds, whether they include homelessness, poverty, drug or alcohol abuse or crime, than through sport. In itself, this development is wonderful. Most players want to be judged by whom they are today, not by whom they once were. However, in a place like Mexico City, the gap between life inside and outside the arena is disturbingly big.

Simply by walking on to the pitch, the players destroy the stereotype of homelessness.

On the pitch, players -almost without exception- look fit and healthy. Many street soccer coaches have explained to me over the years how the Homeless World Cup for players is one of the last stages in their journey away from homelessness. “If you live on the streets, you are busy trying to survive. When you’re wondering where the next meal is going to come from, your priority is not to be in time for trials”, one said. It is when players slowly get involved in training sessions and make their first steps away from the emergency situation they were in that the football tends to flourish. By the time the final eight from each country reach the Homeless World  Cup, they often are physically and mentally in a better state. Simply by walking on to the pitch, the players destroy the stereotype of homelessness.

Off the pitch, the reality of a life without a home is a very different one. Less than 20 meters from the arena entrance, the cold stone pavement in front of restaurants and jewellery shops is home to over half a dozen homeless people. Around the corner, many dozens more battle for survival. Just a few hours after the final whistle blows on the match days, men and women of all ages put their pieces of cardboard down for another cold and dangerous night on the streets.

Whilst national murder statistics surge as a result of the ongoing drugs war, Mexico City’s crime rates have come down in comparison. Analysts name the proximity of government -including excessive numbers of highly trained riot squats and army forces- as one cause. But this same proximity has clearly failed to lead to adequate help for the capital’s most desperate. Whole families crowd the streets around the Zócalo, begging for money. A woman with a toddler and a baby in her arms, a husband and wife with a five-year old holding up a plastic cup: the scenes are heartbreaking and it is hard to see any sign of relief for them.

Anyone who has ever been to a Homeless World Cup and took the opportunity to talk to players and coaches will have gained a sense of just how complex the issue of homelessness really is. But despite the phone company’s great efforts in promoting the event, there is a danger that the tens of thousands of passers-by will perceive a disconnect between the homeless on the street and the homeless on the pitch. A shiny sponsored Playstation football truck, evening entertainment in the form of a Mexican wrestling show on the pitch, brand new Nike trainers for all players and a ball-shaped mascot with sombrero hat won’t help to build a bridge either – no matter how brilliant they are for players’ enjoyment.

Homeless World Cup locations since the start of the tournament:

2012 Mexico City, Mexico – 2011 Paris, France – 2010 Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – 2009 Milan, Italy – 2008 Melbourne, Australia – 2007 Copenhagen, Denmark – 2006 Cape Town, South Africa – 2005 Edinburgh, Scotland – 2004 Gothenburg, Sweden – 2003 Graz, Austria.

The 10th Homeless World Cup has delivered in many ways. Players were better looked after than ever before. Buses and taxis were waiting for them at the airport to bring them all to luxury hotels with breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets included. After covering five editions of the event for different media, the first question from editors still almost always is: ‘And where do all these homeless people sleep all week?’ My answer- depending on the year- has varied from youth hostels to university dorms to a tent camp at an army base. I never thought I’d respond by listing five-star hotel chains.

The quality of the football has improved, too. As the tournament’s reach extends, more and more countries set up national street soccer leagues to determine the winning team to represent the nation at the Homeless World Cup. In some countries, like Mexico, 17,500 people take part in countrywide training sessions. As coach Daniel Campo says: “With so many to pick from, it is easy for me to assemble good teams.” With the level of street soccer training and coaching improving year on year, the skills level during the tournament is more than impressive.

Looking at photos from the first Homeless World Cup in Graz, or even the fifth one in Copenhagen, it is clear that the days of a tournament full of players in all shapes and sizes and with a range of facial hair styles are gone. Out of 450 players, the majority now look like athletes in any other football competition. They are fit an healthy and wear professional football kits, often identical to the ones worn by the professional national teams. But thankfully, growing up doesn’t change one’s DNA. The teams are still full of colourful and eccentric characters, determined to give it their all. And the world’s most important football tournament continues to changes lives for good.