“There’s a Homeless World Cup?”

Even after thirteen years of running, an idea can still blow some people away. Yesterday the Homeless World Cup kicked off in Santiago, Chile, for what is the thirteenth tournament of its kind. Originally founded by Mel Young, up in Glasgow, this year the World Cup brings together 63 teams from 49 countries around the world to play in an event where the only qualifying criteria is that everyone is … homeless.

While in Athens a couple of months ago, I showed up at the weekly practice of the Greek homeless football team. It was Sunday and just before sunset. Yiannis, the team coach, unloads a sack of footballs from the car, saying that he never knew how many people would show up but it usually ranged between 15 and 40 players.

“You’re playing aren’t you?” he said, handing me a neatly folded pile of kit, plus a pair of lurid orange boots dangling from the laces. I’m really not much of a footballer. I have the hit-by-indiscriminate-flying-thing fear, or the crippling sixth sense which alerts you to the sound of any object kicked or thrown from a 50m radius and causes you to shrink instinctively until a correspondent bounce signals safety. This rarely makes for a natural player.

As well as Greece, there are all people from a whole range of countries here: Israel, Egypt, Sierra Leone, the Côte d’Ivoire, Albania, to name but a few. It doesn’t matter; here it’s really only about the colour of the bib and the way you perform with the ball. That’s the message of the Homeless World Cup likewise: using the power of football to bring people together.

Not everyone who joins the weekly practice in Athens is exclusively, ‘on the streets’ homeless. Mike, a Nigerian guy who walks back into town with us after practice, has been settled in Athens for a couple of years but comes along because he enjoys it, and doesn’t experience any discrimination due to race or nationality. Not to mention that playing for the Homeless World Cup effectively makes you a representative for your country. How many people get to say that?