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[SFS Journal Smile Leaders]

#SmileLeaders 004
Homeless World Cup

Homeless is not Hopeless
~A Soccer Ball to Lead Homeless People to a Brilliant Goal ~

The world’s most celebrated city, Paris, will see this summer a global soccer event. Who will be playing at the Champ de Mars that is broadly located northwest bound from the Arc de Triomphe? Homeless people from all over the world will play.

Do homeless people play soccer at all?

It may sound unexpected for many readers, but the Homeless World Cup is now a big sporting event in the world with more than 60 participating teams, including women’s teams. The number of players who have participated in the Homeless World Cup so far counts as high as 50,000. Of course the Homeless World Cup is not on a level with the games of the FIFA World Cup, but it holds big names such as Nike and UEFA as founding partners, as well as Arsenal of the Premier League and some internationally recognized players.

The Current President and CEO of the Homeless World Cup is Mr. Mel Young. He is a recognized social entrepreneur and an Shwab Fellow, and he also serves as a member of the Sports Council of the World Economic Forum. Mr. Young co-founded the event in 2003, and he passionately elaborates on the background and motivation for the founding of the Homeless World Cup.

“There are many various social issues in the world, but it is simply a tragedy and danger to the country to have so many homeless people in town. I just couldn’t leave it.”

Mr.Young previously worked as a journalist in Scotland and co-founded The Big Issue in Scotland in 1993. When he met Harald Shmied, who ran the street paper in Graz, Austria, in 2003, they hit it off and mutually decided to create an event where homeless people from all over the world could enjoy playing soccer.

The inaugural Homeless World Cup was held in 2003 in Graz in Austria. Only18 men’s teams participated in the event with a 30,000-pound sterling sponsorship by the UEFA, football’s European governing body. Nike also assisted with money, kit and branding. The event has made steady growth: 26 teams went to Sweden in 2004, 32 to Edinburgh in 2005, and in 2006 teams from 48 countries, including Afghanistan, Brazil, China and Uganda, competed for the cup in Cape Town. The Homeless World Cup continued to grow, and the first women’s tournament was held at Melbourne 2008 Homeless World Cup.

While it is called the Homeless “World Cup,” it is not the standard competition soccer that is played. It is a kind of street soccer which is played by a smaller number of players which is similar to futsal. Teams can be all male, all female or mixed consisting of 8 players in total. All teams are required to bring a full team of 8 players to the tournament. During the seven-minute halves a maximum of 4 players including the goal keeper are allowed to play on the court, and its rules interestingly mentioned that “as an inclusive tournament it is expected that each player will play a reasonable amount of time each day.” If teams are found not giving players this opportunity they will be warned. If teams persist in not using the full squad of 8 players they will be penalized accordingly at the discretion of the Sports Committee.” In terms of the format of the competition, there are three stages; Preliminary, Secondary, and the Trophy Stage, and  there is a trophy on offer for each group, and all the players will be given a medal.

Organizing an event on this scale with continuous development every year is an extraordinary accomplishment in itself, but a notable aspect of the Homeless World Cup is that the event with its clear goal has also made a significant impact on the world.

For example, research conducted six months after the 2007 Copenhagen event shows that more than 70 per cent of the players who participated felt that the event significantly changed their lives. In addition, 93 per cent said that they have a new motivation for life, and 83 per cent found improvement in their social relations. It also shows that 32 per cent went into education and 29 per cent found a job, which means that the Homeless World Cup achieved its goal of “ending homelessness.” While it is not the primary goal of the Homeless World Cup to promote soccer, it seems that more than 70 per cent of the players who have participated and therefore will never be able to qualify for a future Homeless World Cup event, however, currently continue to play soccer in their own country. The operations and procedures of the Homeless World Cup are conducted by the Big Issue organization in each country, and they now have branches in as many as 60 countries.

By the way, two mandatory conditions to qualify for the Homeless World Cup are that a player must be at least 16 years old and that he or she has not taken part in previous Homeless World Cup tournament. These rules are natural, as the goal of the Homeless World Cup is to end homelessness and the organizers expect the players to get back to a normal life after the tournament.

In fact, Japan will send a national team to this year’s Homeless World Cup. The nickname of the national team is “Nobushi Japan” which literally means “wild fighters”. Big Issue Japan Foundation sponsors the practices and selects the players. To tell the truth, it had not yet been determined at the time of the earthquake disaster whether or not the national team could participate, as the fundraising was not yet adequate. Furthermore, a charity futsal event that was scheduled to be held right after the disaster had to be cancelled due to the “save-energy” policy.

But at the last moment the sponsors of the Japan team decided to go ahead with the plan to participate in the Homeless World Cup. Regardless of the fact that the money raised to date was still not sufficient, the players called for participation in the event to help affected people. I learned the news of the event only a few days before, but I made up my mind immediately to obtain more information.

Speaking of “Homeless,” it sounds, especially for many Japanese people, to refer to someone who has lost a job and shelter because of his or her own laziness. That can be the case, but in fact, there are very many people who become homeless due to an accident or an unfortunate event such as the Tsunami. According to the Big Issue Japan Foundation, the tendency is for the younger generation to constitute a higher percentage of the homeless. A significant number of young people are victims of DV (Domestic Violence), and there are many kids who had to leave the homes where they were born due to family reasons. As for me, I was not familiar with this state of affairs, so I was extremely shocked to learn the reality

The “Nobushi Japan Charity Futsal” event was originally planned by UBS, supported by Citigroup in Japan. Many other foreign-affiliated companies either acted as sponsors or had a participating team. Among them, not a few executives participated, and Mr. Taichi Takahashi, Managing Director of UBS Securities Japan commented about the significance of helping Homeless people;

“I like soccer and I understand the value of sport. So I always try to participate in as many opportunities as possible to show good examples and to engage more employees in social contribution through sport.” Helping those affected by the earthquake disaster is important, but assistance to be provided to other causes cannot be stopped. These homeless people will face difficulties without the support.”

Ms. Kumiko Hori, head of Diversity and Inclusion at UBS Securities Japan, has managed this charity event and has been responsible for the company’s CSR programs. She has also worked hard for the “FIT For Charity Run,” annual financial industry-wide fundraising event involving over 6500 participants from 100 companies. Citigroup has been also active in helping homeless people by means of its community development programs, and Mr. Guy Matthews, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer of Citigroup, appeared with his favorite uniform on the day of the event to show his best performance.

Even though the mood of serious reflection had not gone away, as it had been less than a month since the March 11 disaster happened, some cheerful scenes were found, such as when a homeless player tried to get out of the venue, saying “I’m gonna go out for a minute for a smoke,,” and was taken back to the place right away. And by the time the last games had ended, I surely felt that all of the participants were united.

Realizing the sense of solidarity, I felt I had to visit their practice. I needed to know why homeless people, living without houses or jobs, can have such generosity to help affected people, and how they enjoy practicing soccer with their own goals.

It actually materialized only a few weeks later, and I was a bit nervous as I had heard that there have been very few media personnel who have visited their practice sessions. But that nervous feeling went away right after I arrived at the park and introduced myself to them, all of whom seemed very kind and welcomed me. A young friendly kid told me “Hey, take my picture!” and it cheered me up. During the practice they concentrated on playing with a serious look, but there were continuous jokes and laughs during the breaks, sometimes a call of “Nice Shot!” for their teammates, or high-fiving each other. These scenes were enough to prove how precious the moments of the practices are for them.

For homeless people to get together to play soccer, however, is not such an easy thing in reality. Most of them make their living by selling the “Big Issue” magazine on the street, and if they participate in their practice it means they make less money on that day. While a small lunch of rice balls and a ticket for the public bath will be given, it cannot cover the earnings sufficiently for those who regularly sell more magazines on weekends.

Even so, they come to the park to play soccer with their “mates.” Actually, it started to rain on the day of my visit, and they had to play while covered in mud, but I did not see anyone leaving the practice early. Rather than their despairing over their situation and giving up, they seemed to have accepted the reality of “practicing in the mud” and to have been trying to joke about it and enjoy the moment as much as possible. Apparently, they have some important life skills which people leading normal lives with houses and jobs might often lack.

The coach who also mingled with them in the mud was Mr. Yoshiki Hiruma, who works with the Development Bank of Japan. He learned about the Big Issue Japan Foundation last year while taking a course at Nippon Genki Juku (School for Cheering Japan) taught by Seiichiro Yonekura, and started to volunteer as a coach one year ago.

“They couldn’t dribble properly at the beginning,” Mr. Hiruma commented while reflecting on his early days with the team. “The components of each practice were very basic ones for elementary school kids, but they willingly responded to my advice and I’ve seen them make rapid progress, which is very satisfying. These days, they won’t lose big to the company teams which hold practices regularly, even though they may not win.”

Mr. Hiruma talked further about the benefits that will be obtained through soccer: “The mission of this team is not to win, but to enjoy playing as always. It is the same as in daily life and in people’s lives. I share time with the players and advise them on the process of recognizing the team goal and their own proper role, understanding and accepting them, and attempting to show them the way to take the next action after independent-minded consideration. This is important for them, as I believe it is closely related to something which is needed for them to take the next step in their real lives. While playing against the opponent team, they actually have to conquer themselves.”

This goal of winning yesterday’s yourself can be shared by the Special Olympics that was featured in Smile Leaders #002, and can be shared by everyone. But, as many know, it is not always so easy to achieve this goal.

On the other hand, the Homeless World Cup is a competition to be played for victory, and it has a world ranking system in which Japan ranks 68th, so there is much room for Japan to improve in terms of competitiveness. As a matter of record, Brazil won the tournament at the last (8th) Homeless World Cup in Rio de Janeiro. Mr. Tomohiro Hasegawa of the Big Issue Japan Foundation expresses the goal of Nobushi Japan for this year’s event as follows:

“Players understand their fortune in a special way this year due to the disaster. I hope this experience will turn around every player’s life.”

And Mr. Young, who has been consistently so cooperative and generous with his time for interviews, told me a surprising bit of information about the Japanese national team.

“Did you know the Japanese national team is always very popular among people!”

Noticing my surprise, Mr. Young continued: “The Japanese national team is polite and friendly, they are always surrounded by many people.” There are various background causes why people become homeless: wars and conflicts can be a reason, while economic situations affect some cases. But a road is open for every player at the Homeless World Cup, and it has even led some players to get a job as a professional soccer player. For Japanese players, they seem to be successful in winning the championship based on popularity.

It is also notable that the UEFA has backed up the Homeless World Cup from the beginning with a positive attitude toward the event. Mr. Patrick Gasser, Senior FSR (Football for Social Responsibility) manager, comments on their support of the Homeless World Cup:

“By adopting a flexible and clear social responsibility policy, we believe that football should be used as a force to bring benefits to society, using its potential to influence attitudes and behaviour beyond the confines of the stadium. We have supported the Homeless World Cup since the first event in Graz in 2003, because it has a strong link with football, has a set of clearly defined goals and successfully develops the use of football as a tool for fostering inclusion.”

He added;

"The UEFA has partnered the Homeless World Cup since its first edition in Graz, Austria in 2003. We share its vision of helping homeless people through football. The UEFA not only cares about football, the UEFA cares about ending homelessness."

Here is a recognized sports organization which has declared that it is important for them to contribute to “ending homelessness” and is investing in that purpose. The UEFA also works hard on other social issues, such as racism, and has executed one of the world’s most advanced programs, which reminds us that, in the 21st century, the goal of sports organizations cannot simply be the development of a particular sport. In an era such as the present, it may hardly be recognized if sports organizations do not realize and assume further responsibility to do more than just “healthy development and education for children,” “for a healthy life” or “for the disabled”, which are all too plausible. An executive of a global community commented the other day on this: “Well…it is important, but that’s only part of what sport can do.” At a global level, the social responsibility of sport has been hotly discussed recently, and the reality is that sports organizations are increasingly expected to take action to “change the world”, not simply to “contribute to society.”

The fact of the matter is, that we can hardly learn enough from the Homeless World Cup, which involves almost half of the member countries of the world’s major sports organizations, and which has consistently been making a significant impact by mobilizing the power of sport.

Article: Mie Kajikawa
Photo: Creative Commons/Mie Kajikawa