A sand pit on the border of the Namibian desert is where I first witnessed the power of street soccer.
It was 2006 and eight boys ran after the ball in the smouldering heat. The pitch consisted of a wide tube filled with air, forming a square and two goals. There weren’t many supporters but the players didn’t even notice. They played like their lives depended on it, because it did. Those picked at the end of the trials would go on to represent their country at the Homeless World Cup in Cape Town.
The next year, I met many coaches on the other side of the world when the Homeless World Cup circus landed in the Danish capital of Copenhagen. They had all brought a different team as each player can only compete in the tournament once. With homelessness levels on the rise in most parts of the world, the sad reality is that team managers everywhere have plenty of contestants to pick from.
The Homeless World Cup rules state that a player must have been homeless in the past two years, have been a refugee, or have lived in assisted accommodation or temporary shelter. The challenges for each team are different. There is no global definition of homelessness and poverty, unemployment, drug and alcohol addiction, debt, mental health issues, the criminal justice system and family break ups play varying roles in each individual’s life.
On a practical level, the tournament highlights differences, too. I will never forget some players of these early Namibian teams struggling to play in their brand new boots -donated by Nike, who kitted out players through their CSR programme. It took me a while to work out why the boys’ great skill all of a sudden seemed to have vanished: they were used to playing bare feet.
And yet, there are the similarities. When I moved from Africa to Wales in 2008, I encountered many of the same scenes of temporary defeat but everlasting determination on and around the local street soccer pitches. In following years in Rio de Janeiro, Paris and Mexico City, I found increasing evidence of lives changed as a result of involvement in the tournament.
When the Welsh Dragons entered the field at the Homeless World Cup in Milan, the proud look on their faces mirrored that of the Namibian boys I’d come to know well. I followed them throughout the week and saw their confidence grow each time they put on the bright red national jersey.
Imagine my joy when I bumped into two of these players from the Welsh ’09 squad at the opening parade in Poznan on Saturday. Dai has become the coach of the first-ever Welsh women’s team, and Terry is assistant coach for the men’s. Dai proudly told me that he still uses the profile picture I took of him in his Welsh jersey on his Twitter page.
“We will always help each other, even after we come back”, Terry told me back in 2009. With a polite but proud smile, he filled me in on the progress he has made since we last met: he has gone back to university to study social inclusion and restored contact with his family. After years of volunteering, he got his dream job as a support worker at Street Football Wales.
Dai was just 20 when I interviewed him on the stands in Italy. He had already experienced homelessness and felt lost, until football came along. “When I come home I want to get a job and sort out my life”, he said in Milan. Four years on, he has not only achieved that, but he now helps others to do the same.