by Reece Chambers
Cardiff’s picturesque Bute Park played host to the Homeless World Cup 2019 earlier this summer, a tournament underpinned by love, hope and humanity.
For anyone who visited Bute Park between July 27 and August 3 will know what a unique and special tournament Cardiff had the privilege of hosting. This wasn’t about welcoming big stars or worldwide media outlets, this was about providing an environment of support and love for those who need it most.
Of course, the worldwide media outlets arrived. BBC, ITV, S4C and more gathered in Bute Park to broadcast stories from an inspiring group of people, who have been through unspeakable events to reach this stage.
But, in a nutshell, that is what the Homeless World Cup is all about. It’s about using football as a tool to help people change their lives. All of the tournament’s players have either been homeless or socially excluded within the last year. This isn’t about winners or losers, everyone is a winner to get here. No, it’s not a cliché in this context. For all of these players – previously alcoholics, drug addicts, etc. – it is about turning their lives around through the power of football.
That, back in 2001, is what co-founders Mel Young and Harald Schmeid dreamt of achieving. And, since the tournament’s first competition in Graz, 2003, it has continued to develop in a quest to end homelessness.
Thousands of people gathered in Cardiff over the eight-day tournament and put on one of the tournament’s biggest events to date. Hollywood actor Michael Sheen spearheaded the Welsh bid for the tournament and ultimately became the face of it. His time, energy and indispensable love created a tournament of joy and excitement.
But on every occasion that Sheen spoke to the media, on or off-camera, he always turned attention away from himself. It wasn’t about the time or money he had personally invested, it was about helping change disadvantaged lives for the better.
With over 4,000 people sleeping rough each night in England alone, the issue of homelessness is far from being resolved. But, co-founder of the Homeless World Cup Foundation, Mel Young, fundamentally believes everyone in the world deserves housing. His aim, through the medium of football, is to one day reach that goal. For more information on global statistics of homelessness, click here.
To tell the truth, when I arrived at Bute Park on July 27 to embark on 8 days as a Runner and Reporter for QTV Sports, I had no idea what to expect. My aim was to gain experience within TV production, I gained that – thanks to the lovely people at QTV. But, I also gained much, much more. Career ambitions aside, I gained an invaluable insight into the lives of so many inspiring people and what can be achieved through the power of football.
When I go into new environments, I try not to have any preconceptions about what to expect. I carried this approach into the Homeless World Cup, and was met with 8 days of copious smiles and hugs.
When I spoke to some of the players participating at the tournament, it was hard to comprehend what they had been through; and how far they had come. That’s exactly what Young and Schmeid wanted – the power of football single-handedly changing lives.
My first interview of the tournament will stick with me for a very long time. I had the pleasure of speaking to the Wales men’s captain, Tom Brady, and coach, Wayne Ellaway, immediately after a crucial penalty shoot-out win over Switzerland.
Excitement, of course, was the clear emotion throughout our chat. But what stood out was the connection between captain and coach. Ellaway had previously represented Street Football Wales as captain, and you could see how much Brady admired his coach. The undying respect was obvious, and it showed how football could facilitate such positive change.
Speaking to Tom and Wayne made me realise that football is much more than a game – fittingly #MoreThanAGame was the tournament’s official hashtag – it’s about friendship and belonging. It’s easy to get caught up in the noise of professional football, but when it comes down to it, football is about togetherness.
After everything the two had been through in their respective personal lives, it all came to this. A chance to represent Wales on the world stage. They did that, and they did it with class. The Welsh public welcomed them with open arms, and I hope the Wales team was able to change public opinion towards homelessness. Most people are homeless due to extraordinary circumstances or lack of support, through no fault of their own. If this Wales team showed their country one thing over the tournament, it was that they all have a determination to make something good of their lives.
With over 500 players from over 50 different nations, I had similar – yet very different – conversations with players throughout the week. From dancing and singing South Africans bringing energy to the tournament, to smiles and hugs from every nation, the Homeless World Cup is a truly magical event.
Amongst my fellow colleagues, one player had come to our attention right from day one. An Indonesian player named Reksa stole the show from day one with his ever-lasting love and kindness to anyone he met. He hugged, quite literally, everyone he came into contact with. His constant smiling and laughing made him one of my stand out’s from the eight days in Bute Park.
On day four, I tried to get an interview with him before a match. It turns out he wasn’t fit to play the match, and his English was limited to about two words. The two words he managed to get across to me were ‘fun’ and ‘good’. That’s all I needed to know. It was clear that he was having the time of his life, but for him to be able to communicate such positive words says a lot about his attitude.
Brady, Ellaway, and Reksa all have different stories and different reasons for taking part in the Homeless World Cup. They need not be publicised to the world, but what must be explained is this:
The Homeless World Cup is a place where those who have been let down by society have a chance to turn their lives around. If football is good for one thing, it is that it gives even the most isolated people the opportunity to feel part of something.
Having seen thousands of people from around the world cheer on some of the most inspiring people I have ever met, the Homeless World Cup will always hold a very special place in my heart.
Homelessness isn’t something that we can change overnight, but the power of football is certainly a way of changing public attitudes towards homelessness.
My perceptions of homelessness have changed, and I hope yours have too.