Magic happened in the heart of Amsterdam during the first sunny weekend of July. Players from 21 different cities took part in the Dutch Street Cup: Holland’s national street soccer competition for people in social support programmes. The 39 participating teams gave the city a taste of what lies ahead in 2015, when the Homeless World Cup will take place in the Netherlands.
By Danielle Batist
Supporters cheer, tourists stop in their tracks and players hug each other upon hearing the final whistle. The women’s team from Amsterdam and men’s team from Amsterdam South-East have extra reason to celebrate: by winning the national street football competition, they have qualified themselves for the Homeless World Cup in Poland next month.
But the unique tournament is about more than winning. Cherished trophies are not only handed to those who won the most games, but also to the teams who demonstrated true sportsmanship. The ladies team from Utrecht, the men’s team from FC Assen (North region) and Maastricht (South region) are delighted to have won the Fair Play Cup. “This Cup means a lot to us”, says the captain of Team Maastricht. “It shows that we are a team with respect, sportsmanship and discipline: all things we need in daily life.”
Keeper Rob of team Leiden shouts instructions to his team from the side-line of the pitch. Due to a knee injury, he cannot play in his team’s final match. He says it is the whole experience that counts: “This is the fifth year I take part in the tournament. I started playing football when I got invited by a support organisation for the homeless in Leiden. I love the tournament, everyone is enjoying themselves and no one is causing any trouble. It is great to be active, play games and just all have a good time together. If I did not have football, I would probably just be drinking on the streets all day.”
“It shows that we are a team with respect, sportsmanship and discipline: all things we need in daily life.”
The Dutch Street Cup is organised annually by the Life Goals Foundation, who use sport as a way to engage society’s hard to reach groups. Director Arne de Groote says this year’s tournament is the biggest and best yet. “We have 39 participating men and women’s teams and we organise regional tournaments in city centre locations across the country. The finals here at Dam Square are a great celebration of the work our local partners do on the ground all year. Around one thousand players enjoy regular football sessions which they would otherwise not have access to.”
The Life Goals Foundation works closely with a network of professional partners to ensure the sustainability of the programme. Participating cities pay to take part in the Dutch Street Cup and organisations like the Salvation Army sponsor the programme. “Since our launch, we have grown year upon year and the support of the city of Amsterdam and others has been fantastic”, says De Groote, adding that his team are still looking for national and international sponsors as they work towards 2015.
The banners, billboards and flags around the football pitch leave no doubt as to what is in store for street soccer in the Netherlands. In two years’ time, Amsterdam will welcome more than 500 players from over sixty countries. The Homeless World Cup takes place in a different city every year and has already inspired citizens of Melbourne, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Mexico City and beyond.
De Groote wants the 13th edition of the Homeless World Cup to be a special one. “We want to make it a week-long football festival. Of course, the street soccer players will take centre stage, but we hope to inspire people off the pitch as well. There will be food stalls, music gigs and all sorts of activities for players and supporters alike. We want to team up schools with players, so that pupils can learn about foreign countries and social issues and of course cheer on their teams. With so many cultures coming together in a city that is already very multi-cultural, it promises to be a colourful event.”
Events like the Dutch Street Cup and the Homeless World Cup rely heavily the support of loyal volunteers who often use their holidays to take part. Referee Michel van Oudheusden is one of them. A contractor in a demolition and earthworks company by day and KNVB (Dutch Football Association) referee on weekends, Van Oudheusden is a busy man. Yet he takes time off several times a year to work at street soccer events. For the last four years, he and fellow Dutchman Paul Nagtegaal have formed part of the Homeless World Cup’s international referee team. They also referee at the Dutch Street Cup and various other street soccer events, including in Switzerland.
“In regular football, we get much less respect from players than during street soccer games.”
What Van Oudheusden loves most about street soccer is the respect that runs through the game, he says. “Players respect each other, they respect the referee and they respect themselves. People often have preconceived ideas about people who are homeless or marginalised in other ways. On the pitch, these players show the public what they are capable of, not just as football players but on many levels. In regular football, we get much less respect from players than during street soccer games.”
The referee says the biggest reward is to see what the tournaments mean to players. “As street soccer referees we have to be very aware of the social situation and difficulties people have faced. Sometimes players come up to you and hug you to say thanks. When they play football, they can escape their worries for a while. On the last day of a tournament, I often see players cry because they have to face reality again. But when you see their confidence grow during the week, you know they are on the right track to change their lives.”