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Measures of Hope: The Homeless World Cup

Measures of Hope: The Homeless World Cup

Binoy Kampmark
August 24, 2011

In Paris this week, a rather different sort of sporting tournament has been taking place. It’s the ninth Homeless World Cup, with 64 teams waging a street styled football battle as much for recognition on the pitch as off it. This is no small matter – once you realise that Europe has roughly 3 million who are deemed homeless, while the global figure comes to roughly one billion.

Unlike other tournaments, it’s success can be gauged by what happens after the boots have been hung up, and the teams leave the grounds. Credibility and improvement off the pitch is everything. ‘The way we look at it,’ explains the Republic of Ireland coach Mick Pender, ‘it’s about what happens when they go back. We’ve had great success with the programme where fellas have gone on to college, got jobs, gone back to families’ (Irish Times, Aug 24). And the competition, it might be added, has more than just ‘fellas’ participating, with an impressive contingent of participants in the women’s tournament.

The tournament features a motley and remarkable collection of the marginalised. For the first time, an Indonesian side, organised through a drug rehabilitation centre Rumah Cemara, finds itself participating, unusually featuring participants with HIV. As the caption of an advertisement summary of their cause says (Global Giving), ‘Through football we can change the world.’ Hyperbole? No – not when one realises how brittle, wayward characters can find their feet behind a ball. From the margins, participants move to the centre, demonstrating marked skills and endurance. The words of the project leader, Ginan, are poignant: ‘There is no other miracle than respecting our existence as human beings.’

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The roots of the competition lie in the ideas of social entrepreneur Mel Young, co-founder of the Big Issue in Scotland, and Australian street paper editor Harald Schmied. Enter then, the world of the street paper, which has now assumed a vital life, comprising a global network of over 80 members. According to the Homeless World Cup Paris 2011 website, annual circulation of these papers totals 30 million a year, helping 100,000 homeless and the long-term unemployed.

At the first matches in Graz in 2003, popularity was so great organisers had to erect extra screens. Polling on attitudes towards the homeless showed vast improvements in terms of how they were portrayed to the public. While these are small samples, 160 spectators surveyed before a match at the 2007 tournament in Copenhagen showed an improvement from 58 percent having a positive view to 85 percent. Then again, it might also well be that the matches provide a high speed spectacle, with a fair spread of goals.

Broader impacts are always difficult to measure, and emotional registers notoriously unreliable. The figures of the tournament themselves, taken from Copenhagen, show that those who matter – the players – improved dramatically. 32 percent of players subsequently went into education, 29 percent found employment, 83 percent had ‘improved social relations’. Addictions are being combated. The tournament has spawned football programs at the grassroots level in 60 nations, with several legacy enterprises that deal with sporting equipment and recycling.

For those who suggest that football is an incubator of violence and naked commercialism, be it player or spectator, a glance at the participants of the Homeless World Cup provides a more than suitable corrective. The French philosopher Pascal may well have been right to claim that the sole cause of human unhappiness was an inability to stay quietly in a room – but for those who have no rooms let alone homes, the world, and happiness, is often elsewhere.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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