Leaving a mark

I have met many of the players this week with tattoos of various sizes and styles.

For some they have a deep meaning others are just decorative.

For all they are a permanent reminder of a moment in time, they hold a significance.

One told me.

“It was done by the father of my children”

For all it was something they could tell the story of where and when it was done.

This week has for all the players especially been, we hope one of the lifetime moments.
Memories etched in their hearts, we hope the lessons as well as the experience will be remembered.

When you have a tattoo there is a connection with others that’s a shared experience, I’m over simplifying, but that’s what attending the Homeless World Cup is like for me.

Anyone who has ever attended any of the 12 tournaments will understand.

I find a connection that’s almost impossible to replicate. A glimpse of what the world should be like, it’s more than equality its raising each other up to a higher place and a feeling of belonging unparalleled.

I hope by reading some of the stories that have been shared you have a glimpse of what it means to the players, for each one something different a bit like their tattoos is very personal.

I thank Santiago for giving me and the players, coaches and volunteers an amazing experience that will leave a mark in the heart.

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Melting the Ice man

Nikolai is one of over 7000 plus people in Finland who have or are still homeless.

He has been in the Finnish Football Program for over 2 years now.

To him the adventure of the Homeless World Cup in Chile has meaning beyond football.

“It has been amazing, the people are amazing, the atmosphere is amazing”

Maybe some of the MAGIC we describe is thawing this very guarded man.

Years of addiction and an abusive past has he said left him “protecting myself”

The ice barriers have been built up over many years, abusing drugs to stop from feeling the pain of his past.

He has he confessed ” cried twice this week, the feelings are strong” he added ” to be part of something”

Once during an AA meeting with the Russians and again in the circle of feelings a ritual of the Finnish team, a way of checking in powerful to the players.

He has seen hard times, but has been clean for over two and half years an amazing achievement.

What does Home mean to you I asked?

“Safety, Love and Protection”

“But I don’t think I have that yet, but I have hope that maybe I will one day”

He has a place to live, but is still in his opinion to obtain those feelings.

I asked him if he were Prime Minister for a day, what would he do ?

” I think this is a tough question he said, maybe just provide more social housing, so people have a choice”

He has learnt a lot by being here, only the third time out of his country and the first out of Europe.

This experience he added “has given me hope for my future, I AM something worth caring about”

A huge self affirmation from a very shy character, he has a glimpse of love and wants more.

Maybe it’s the heat in Chile or the warmth of his fellow teammates or the glow of love from the tournament.

Whatever it is, I believe that it may take a while, but the walls of ice are definitely melting around Nikolai’s heart.

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Random Acts of Kindness

Shane quietly and without fuss collected the rubbish at the Homeless World Cup, this unassuming man went about his day making the arena tidier and led by example.

Luckily for me I caught up with him later and managed to have a small conversation.

I asked what prompted him to do it.

He told me of a particular trip in California, where the local campsite was littered with rubbish.

“It upset me that this beautiful landscape was ruined by tourists, ever since then I can’t help but feel compelled to tidy up”. He said.

It was clear that Shane had an awareness of the world and those around him.

Whether it was rubbish or people Shane’s attitude was simple ‘do something’

We talked about how interesting it was to observe the stray dogs wondering around the site, and yet the ‘stray’ people weren’t allowed in the arena.

Outside the hotel a man crashed on the bench we both found it hard to see this man whist everyone else was eating.

He made sure this man had something.

How do you change the world?

One act of kindness at a time.

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Changing the world, one game at a time.

India has a really great program Slum Soccer, and have once again lit up the Homeless World Cup in Chile.

Bringing their smiles and dancing to the event, actively making friends wherever they go.

I caught up with the Indian Women’s Team Trikali, Shweta, Vinita, Rohini, Monica in a quiet moment, and wondered what the petite delicate flowers from a place far far away thought about the experience the MAGIC, I was about to be blown away with what I heard.

Translated by the Coaches Akshay and Dhaval , I asked them to sum up the event in one word.
“Awesome, Great, Change,Magical”

“I am Speechless” said Rohini

When I asked about the difference between a house and a home, I’d stumbled on one of the many cultural differences about India.

There is a difference between life in India and maybe the rest of the countries they explained.
“It’s very patriarchal, family stays together if the father loses his job and cannot afford rent then the whole family has to leave. ”

“They are all homeless”

There are many people living on government owned land “squatting” and therefore it is not there own the government like many others wants this land back.

The closest word they had was ‘Ghar’ to home and an expression which literally meant, ‘Where there is love there is home.’

Shweta has since she was 2 lived in a hostel and declared “it’s my home, this has been my family.”

After a pause and some thought, I was trying to understand the landscape.
I asked with negative stories coming out of India about women and the explanation of a Patriarchal system where as a girl your life is mapped out for you, where choices are limited.
What does it feel like to play football and represent India at the Homeless World Cup?

In this moment the girls exploded with noise, I had clearly struck a nerve.

Men should realise women are equal and the women also need to realise this themselves.

Vinita told me the story of when she first wore a kit.
“We went into the dressing room to change and the coach kept calling us out. We were all afraid to come out with our legs exposed.” They all laughed the cultural experiences was the first barrier they had to overcome.

“Eventually the coach said he would count to 10 and if we didn’t come out out he would come in and spank all of them.” Only in India.

The inequality they had been brought up in was obvious and something they were keen to change.

I asked them if they were Prime Minister for day what would they do?

Another explosion of noise, they had plenty of ideas.

“End corruption” one said, “Education for all” another said.

“If everyone was educated you would end corruption” Monica said.

Vinita responded ” There are many educated people who are corrupt.”

This is true the world over.

Their passion proved to me these 5 girls were ready for change and India had better listen.

One game at a time.

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A red card to homelessness

It’s been six years since I first met Abdul in the Sweltering heat of Milan at the Homeless World Cup in 2009.

Since then it has been my honour to call him friend.

We caught up for 10 minutes in the busy schedule during the tournament this is unusual.

Since the tournament in Cape Town in 2006, he like many of the referees has been a main stay of the event.

We sat in the shade and talked about why he comes every year.

“People are often surprised that we don’t get paid, not even expenses”.

“I will turn down paid work to be here”. He added.

“At home I am a counsellor, I see everyday the pain of poverty”.

“Yet here it is different everyone understands and have made incredible strides in their journeys”.

We agreed it is like an addiction coming to this event, and the equality in the arena is tangible.
He reminded me of the moment in Mexico when he was pointing out to the England team a woman with 2 children outside the hotel begging , where everyone was eating, and how even they should acknowledge there is always somebody worse off.

I remember that moment and many like them, that bring you down to the core of the issue.

For every one player who is here there are hundreds of thousands still struggling. As Mel young said in his opening speech it is “an outrage”.

For Abdul the tournament means so much, he described the MAGIC.

“We are celebrating the the Homeless. Looking into their hearts and bringing the lost back into the arms of the world”.

” we give them a new label of PRIDE and it is seen time and time again on the pitch”

He also said that he sees so many changes that are needed in South Africa.

“Just giving a man a house is not the answer, sometimes he has to work to change first or the house will be obsolete”

He concluded that it’s a simple formula.

HWC = HOPE = CHANGE

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Three girls, one love

Can you lose everything and yet gain more than you started with?

Apparently according to the conversation I had with 3 of the USA women’s team you can and they have.

Megan, Angie and Chris opened their hearts in a passionate way say in the shade behind the stands of the Homeless World Cup taking place in Santiago, Chile.

All from Sacramento’s Lady Salamanders part of the U.S. Street Soccer program, although clearly they all had experienced homelessness and issues with addiction.
It was clear that Santiago was the beginning not the end of their journey.

We chatted about the MAGIC and how the felt about the experience so far.

“We’re on the same page with everyone.”
“I’m treated like a celebrity”

“Love” said Angie

Then Chris pipped up and summed it all up with the most heartfelt words.
“I will be remembered, that I exist”

I had to hold back my own tears as the recognition of that statement was hitting me. After all isn’t that what we all want.

I asked what they thought HOME meant.
I was then taught a valuable lesson Megan and Angie looked at each other knowingly.

“Home means support, the support I feel at soccer practice, from my team mates from the coaches”

“It’s better than some of the places we’ve called home” Megan said with a sincerity that came from someone who had seen the darkest of times and come out the other side.
“I didn’t always get that, mostly I got negativity” Angie had openly shared.

A history of abusive relationships and seeking love in the wrong places and using drugs to fill that whole as Angie put it, littered their past.

“Home means my daughters” said Chris, adding her church family and her teammates.

Home for some is not the happy, safe place I was presuming and it was true for these women as for so many more they represented.

They all had an inner beauty that radiated from them, behind the beaming smiles laid a truth they only know.

And yet I came away feeling loved, they were oozing it out of every pore.

This special bond formed over years of shared ups and downs on and off the pitch, had it seemed, given them a gift they wanted to share.

Angie was candid about how much she had lost and the isolation she had experienced battling her demons.

Yet still I came away with LOVE and the feeling that together they could overcome anything.
I never imagined 3 women from
Sacramento would teach me a lesson, of love, humility and positivity, but boy did they do that and more.

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A tournament of second chances

Jukka part of the Finnish team in Chile this year was supposed to be in Poznan last year.

His story is another of the many of triumph over diversity.

He was injured before Poznan and couldn’t mKe the tournament.

“I was so disappointed”

Having been selected this year he once again has been injured after only one game, frustrated watching from the sidelines. He just wanted to be part of the team.

I am feeling better now and can’t wait to help my team mates, my friends.

Having been homeless twice in his life, starting this last time in 2007.

A life littered with drugs and alcohol abuse that lead to crime and many stints in prison.

He has been in the Finnish Army as everyone has too in Finland.

Eventually through rehabilitation he received a pardon from the president of Finland.

Another second chance.

I asked what the MAGIC felt like, how could he explain it?

“To be part of something to be part of this team, it’s inexplainable”

Not having a background in any sport at all, he is an unlucky player and yet he acknowledges how football has saved his life.
“After relapsing having been clean for 11 years, I was dying of abusing drugs. It was a humbling time and something I will always remember. ”

I asked what HOME meant to him?
“Home is where my heart can rest, I am safe.” There was a tear in his eye, you could tell what this meant and it wasn’t as he agreed about a roof.

” I have spent some time in Poland and Estonia when I was homeless. It was lonely and no one understood me. I remember coming back to Finland and hearing for the first time someone speaking my language, I knew I was home. ”

I talked about the homeless people in Santiago.

“I just smile and say hola, I hope they get a second chance like me.”

He feels more ready to take this chance now, I know I will always have football.

The Homeless World Cup in Chile has given him and many others like him a second chance.

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Punk rocker, Player, Philosopher

Christoph is a striking character with his red Mohican.

A self professed punk rocker who decided in 2001 that a life of work and responsibility was not for him.

“I looked at my parents and they were hard working people, but they weren’t happy”. He told me.

I think back and I chose an alternative lifestyle within my circle of friends to live and beg on the streets rather than spend the rest of my life working and being unhappy. I wanted the freedom.

He acknowledged it was partly rebellion and a lifestyle choice.

Home he said means “a place where his heart is and he’s happy”. Although in German he added there is no literal translation.

We talked about life in Switzerland and how it’s relatively easy to beg and yet he added.

“It’s a hard existence”

When quizzed what he would say to his younger self, he laughed.

“I know he wouldn’t listen, probably tell him to drink less beer”

One thing he would change in Switzerland was the vote to NOT agree to a minimum wage for those unemployed and in poverty.
This was the landscape in Switzerland that he has grown up in the gap between the haves and have nots is a huge one.
The tournament has he agreed been MAGIC and amazing to see so many people in one place smiling and laughing”

Football has this ability and he stated that it’s a universal language. Something we all share. Music can be a personal interpretation football is the same wherever you go.

He said he found it tough to see homeless people in Santiago and a bit strange.

“They have it a lot harder living on the streets here.”

He is unusual in that he openly admitted making a choice to essentially become homeless, although he didn’t think that was what he was doing.

With the help of the Suisse program he has made a different lifestyle choice.
He said “I look back with fondness and smile at some of the memories it wasn’t all bad”.

It’s important for all of us to remember homelessness means something different for everyone.

He had a philosophy that lead him down one path and now it’s taking him down another.

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A street full of miracles

For me the parade is always the best part and the pre -parade is even better.

The opportunity to come together with all the countries and mingle with the public of the host city.

A million photos and memories captured.

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Yesterday I caught up with two players who were representing their countries,, but also representing their journeys.

Toby who is captain of the Scotland team and goalkeeper, sat in the shade telling me about his journey that started in 2001.

A too familiar story of addiction and despair, at one point he acknowledged that he reached a point where it was live and move forward or take his own life.

Eventually into recovery he has moved forward and is amazed at the MAGIC of the tournament.

“I was waiting in the parade and talked to this fella who said to me look around what do you see, ‘a street full of miracles’.

He explained that every one he met was basically unselfish, far from the norm in his experience.

Through his journey he’s understood what is important in life. So when I asked him what home meant to him he said.
“My daughter. It’s where I’m loved”.

Everyone has a different definition none ever say bricks and mortar or a roof.

We talked about this being life changing and his awareness that he needs to guard his daughter from
making the same mistakes.

Toby was a man with a mission and he had connected.

I later went on to speak to Peter goalkeeper for the Denmark, I was discussing my conversation with Toby when he said. “Yeah that was me!!!”

“I said that to Toby in the parade, we connected for sure.”

I asked him about when he first became homeless.

Again the similarity was uncanny 2001 through addiction and the struggle to get off the streets was hard.
” I’ve had an apartment for 2 years only been able to use it for the last year, because It felt too tough coming off the streets that I knew and the freedom.” He explained.

“The responsibility to myself was too much”.

He told me eventually that HOME meant to him “Safety” he also said it was the first time he had thought about it and was a bit overawed by the thought.

” when I looked in Toby’s eyes I knew, I just knew he had also suffered from addiction”

“That’s a connection only a fellow addict can understand”.

We talked for a lot longer on a bench in a side street in downtown Santiago.

We had connected it was clear the MAGIC was there again I am lucky to find these connections and players sharing in essence their heart.

Both of them agreed that before becoming homeless they had thought negatively about homeless people.

“I thought they were bums” Peter said.

“Stereotypes of junkies and addicts”. Toby had confessed.

Still humble and honest and still seeking a path in their epic journeys, both had aspirations to pass on the experience they will take away.

“I want to volunteer for Ombold and maybe be a goalkeeper coach” Peter confided.

That’s why from as Mel Young said they had come from the darkness to the light and seen ‘a street full of miracles’ Their eyes have a different viewpoint than ours, but just for a second I saw what they saw.

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A mans best friend

Yesterday on the way back from the Homeless World Cup draw I happened upon a moment that always contrasts with the MAGIC that I talk about and the joyous feeling of the tournament.

As Mel Young co-founder of the event said on Twitter ” @melyoung53: Out early this morning in #Santiago many people sleeping in streets like other world cities;end homelessness ”

I passed one of these guys Mel talked about who I heard crying in the busy Main Street, I turned to see the tears roll down his face, carrying in his arms the slumped body of a dog.

It was clear it was his, and the dog had died. Hit by a passing car on the busy roads in Santiago.

My heart broke into pieces, the crowds kept walking almost invisible to them.
I stopped and in the only way I could I recognised his pain.

The man had just lost his best friend. Struggling on the streets is hard enough without adding to that with losing your closest companion.

Day one kicked off with this still in my thoughts, the joy and wonder of the parade.

I watched as the tournament began in earnest the pride of representing your country abundant for all to see.

Later I caught up with the Greek Team and chatted to one of their players, who I briefly met at the draw.

Alex who is not the average age shall we say had a twinkle in his eye when I asked if we could chat.

I asked him after 2 days had he experienced the MAGIC yet?

“Yes he said with a beaming smile”

What does it feel like, why is it magical?

” that feeling of pride when I was told I will go to Chile and represent my country”.

I continued to probe him about the feeling trying to understand better eventually he replied.

” I feel a connection with these people we do not need to speak the same language to be connected.”

In this moment he explained it so beautifully we were both moved to tears.

The coach George who kindly translated for us and we continued talking about his story how he lost his job and broke up with his girlfriend and ended up homeless.
I story that sounds so familiar and could and does happen to many.

How he worked with the Greek Street Paper Shedia to finally earn enough to get a place of his own.

I asked what ‘Home’ meant to him ?

“Home means happiness” it was simple we explored what he felt about his time being homeless.
” I was invisible when I was selling the paper it was as if I didn’t exist sometimes”
I asked what he felt about homeless people before he had these dramatic changes and ended up homeless himself.

” they are all heroes to me, the struggle to survive makes them heroes to me it’s tough living on the streets” he said.

I asked him him what the culture in Greece is towards the homeless people there.

George interjected with the expression ” if my neighbour has a goat I wish it would die” he explained that the general meaning was that people would rather you came down together rather than inspire to do better than your neighbours. The opposite of keeping up with the ‘Joneses’.

By this time with Greeks history we had discussed many philosophical points and Alex had one more story to tell.

“When I first became homeless I had a dog called ‘ Sifis’ he was my best friend. I had to ask my friend in Crete if he could look after him until I found a place. ”

Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months. He missed his pal.

Eventually when he settled into his new place he managed through shipping his dog back through various cities back to be reunited.

You could tell how emotional he was and how he had a CONNECTION with his ‘Sifis’

The same feeling he described earlier about the MAGIC experienced at the Homeless World Cup.

For me it felt like a full circle moment, within 24 hours I had seen a man on the streets lose his best friend and a man from the streets of Athens tell me how he had got his best friend back.

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