‘Football is my drug’: how the Homeless World Cup 2019 helped create meaningful change

Welsh Warriors pictured at the end of the Homeless World Cup 2019. Source: Mile44

by Reece Chambers

When the 14th edition of the Homeless World Cup kicked off in 2017, Jen Gattrell was jumping between temporary accommodation services in South Wales. Two years on, she has represented Wales at the Homeless World Cup and her story shows just how much football can be a platform to create meaningful change.

“Football is my drug. I’ve never touched drugs or become reliant on alcohol but football has always been there for me,” said Gattrell.

“It’s my happy pill and it’s part of who I am. I’ve always been told to never give up on football because it’s that escape for me.”

Gattrell is just one of thousands of players who took part in the 2019 Homeless World Cup in Cardiff, but for her it had extra significance being in her own capital city.

“It’s mad to think there are only eight of us that has ever represented Wales at the Homeless World Cup in Cardiff.

“At the time, it just felt unreal. I was just going along with it and felt like I was just waiting to wake up… it was like a dream.”

In a truly unique tournament, the Homeless World Cup aims to inspire lives through the power of football. More than that, it is an opportunity for those who have been let down by society to turn their lives around. With an estimated 1.6 billion people without access to adequate housing in the world, the tournament is of paramount importance across the globe.

For people who have been on the fringes of society, working to get back into a sense of normality and stability can often depend on confidence and self-belief. For Gattrell, the tournament provided the chance to improve that.

“I’ve been explaining my life all the time about who I am to try and justify myself to people. People have judged me since I’ve been young… but now I’ve been able to express who I really am.

“It’s made me a better person knowing that I should believe in myself a lot more. I know now that I should be more accepting of who I am and it’s made me a much better person than I thought I was.”

In a sense, that is exactly what the Homeless World Cup aims to do. It is not about winning the matches or scoring the best goals, but more importantly getting everything you can out of such a valuable experience.

Thousands of people attended the alcohol-free tournament in Cardiff’s Bute Park earlier this year to watch the event. Michael Sheen led the bid for Cardiff to host the tournament and this year it developed into much more than just football.

Michael Sheen greets players at the opening ceremony of the Homeless World Cup. Source: Daniel Lipinski

With keynote speakers, debates and music events, the tournament attracted a wider audience. But at the very core was the focus on creating meaningful change for sectors of society that often go unnoticed.

Neil Ingham, a trustee for Street Football Wales, has been involved with the charity for over the last four years. He believes that the tournament has the power to shift the inevitability of people’s lives.

“Life expectancy of people who have gone through these sorts of institutions are really low… any kind of shift in that trajectory is a massive positive,” said Ingham.

“You’re constantly fighting a tide of likelihood, a statistical inevitability. Shifting the sense of inevitability is something that the tournament is massive on… it says to players that there’s a possibility.”

For Ingham, being involved in this year’s Homeless World Cup had extra significance. Exactly nine months before the start of the tournament, he and his wife had returned from the 2018 edition in Mexico to find out they were due a baby.

He spent most of his time during the 2019 tournament between Heath hospital and Bute Park, but it is that level of sentiment and commitment that makes such a unique tournament even more special.

“When I went down to watch the men’s team play a match on a lovely evening with a packed out stand, I just broke out in tears of joy. It was just so wonderful to see these guys and girls on the fringes of society being asked for their autographs.”

As someone who has been involved with Street Football Wales for a number of years, Ingham knows all too well about the tainted past of players and uncertainties they still face in their lives.

“The reality is that a lot of their experiences are too horrific to go into detail about… A lot of the players have come through a care system, cycles of abuse and a whole host of awful experiences.

“A lot of the reality of drug and alcohol dependence is hard to talk about. You’d have to write a book with a million different pieces to get a sense of it,” said the Street Football Wales trustee.

The true beauty of the Homeless World Cup is the way in which everyone’s problems and insecurities are left at the door. It is a chance for players, coaches and the general public to get lost in a festival of football and treat everyone equally.

Hollywood actor, Michael Sheen, was a big part in getting the tournament to Cardiff. His constant efforts in creating the bid and even donating his own money to the tournament tells you all you need to know about how the event encourages generosity.

Sheen was accompanied throughout the week by other big names from the entertainment industry. The likes of Wales’ own Charlotte Church and Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield joined Sheen throughout the week. However, the attention on these world stars was never placed in the way of the football.

Hundreds of games every day provided a constant reminder that this was about the players, not anyone else. Of course, the magnetism of big names helped swell crowds, but the simplicity of homeless people improving their lives through football was never too far away.

Welsh Warriors pictured before the Homeless World Cup last summer. Source: Paul John Roberts

“Even the symbol of putting on the Welsh shirt, it’s something that anyone who loves sport in Wales would love to do. Suddenly they get to represent their nation and that is a massive show of confidence in them which most of them would never really had in their lives.

“In the Cardiff tournament that was massively amplified because they were playing at home in front of their own fans,” added Ingham.

To illustrate the impact of the tournament, Cardiff’s hosting of the Homeless World Cup recently won the ‘Greatest Sports Story of the Year’ at the Wales Sport Awards 2019. Presented by Sport Wales, the award recognises the incredible impact that the tournament has had on changing public perceptions of homelessness.

“I think it helps massively… they aren’t burdened with the layers of sentiment surrounding homelessness that is usually portrayed to the public… the tournament has shifted a lot of the public perceptions [around homelessness] and just created a sense of positivity,” noted Ingham.

Above all else, the tournament should be recognised for the significant positive change it has facilitated. For Gattrell, playing in the Homeless World Cup is something that she will never forget.

“The biggest thing for me is that I’ve worn the Welsh national shirt… my confidence and self-belief has got a lot of better. Getting asked for autographs after games was just amazing and it made me feel like I was part of the Welsh squad.”

– Jen Gattrell, Welsh representative at the 2019 Homeless World Cup.

But a key focus for Street Football Wales is that none of the momentum gained from the Homeless World Cup is lost. Ingham, and his Street Football Wales colleagues, are conscious that the drop off after the tournament is the biggest challenge they face.

At the core of Street Football Wales’ values is a charity that promotes social inclusion through participating in football. By promoting the positive change of lives through football, the charity takes on the everyday issues that players face.

For Gattrell – who has represented Street Football Wales for a number of years – there is a sense that the charity needs to do more in order to optimise its full potential. Her remarkable story illustrates the power of sport, but the value she places on her experiences are markedly lower than one would expect.

“This is where I get confused, because how can I take the confidence I’ve got from football into real life situations?

“I don’t think it’s taught me how to get a job or anything like that. I feel like that should be the next step for someone… there’s not really that much help after the tournament… I think there could be more done to help players after we finished in the summer,” said the 34-year-old.

After a tournament that saw thousands of the general public flood the fields of Bute Park to witness the empowering nature of football, it is important that such significance is not wasted.

If we are to see real change in the way that homelessness is tackled in society, the Homeless World Cup could be the key to unlocking that potential.

The challenge now is to continue that drive for meaningful change beyond football.

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