How the Homeless World Cup went virtual in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic

Under normal circumstances, this week street soccer projects from across the world would be together in Tampere, Finland for the 2020 instalment of the Homeless World Cup.

But as with large gatherings of any kind – including professional football leagues – the coronavirus pandemic put a stop to it, with organisers wisely cancelling the tournament earlier this year.

It briefly left a void in the calendar for players and spectators alike. But this weekend, celebrations will be moved online for the first ever virtual Homeless World Cup Day.

Photo by Daniel Lipinski

Taking place on 5 July, on what would have been the day of the competition finals, it is billed as an opportunity for anyone, anywhere, to experience the thrilling sporting action and camaraderie the event is known for, and learn about the hard work done behind the scenes to improve the lives of the marginalised people it seeks to benefit.

Speaking ahead of the day, Mariana Mercado, a spokesperson for the Homeless World Cup Foundation, told INSP that it was “absolutely devastating” that it would be the first time in 18 years there would be no Homeless World Cup, even if, ultimately, it was the only thing to do.

She said: “It’s how we showcase the best of what we do. We as a team were sad, for those in Tampere working to set it up, and especially for the players. But there was no choice.

“So, we decided to make the most of this socially distanced normal we now have, and the best way to do that was to have a day of celebration.”

Photo by Ole Christian Eklund

When plans for the day were announced, Mel Young, chairman and founder of the Homeless World Cup (and a co-founder of INSP), said: “We’ve lost more than a sporting event. We’ve lost the stage on which we showcase the power of football to inspire and change lives.

“The Homeless World Cup is more than a tournament – it’s life changing and totally transformational for those who take part. We want to bring some good out of the current situation and have had to be innovative in our thinking about how we do that.”

The day itself will place those most important to the enterprise front and centre: the players. Stories of how street soccer players have overcome hardship and poverty and how playing team sports has helped them do that are always one of the most inspiring products of the Homeless World Cup. Many street papers have parallel street soccer projects – both are a proven means of boosting self-esteem and life skills within vulnerable communities. Last year’s tournament in Cardiff included entrants from Korea, Greece, Australia, Ireland and Switzerland that were connected with local street papers.

So, how have players got involved with no actual World Cup taking place? Through the time-tested, and endlessly challenging, skill of the keepy uppy. Over the last few weeks, members of 34 men’s and 16 women’s teams have been showing off their ability, and winners will be crowned on Homeless World Cup Day.

“Of course, it’s not a replacement for the Homeless World Cup,” said Mercado. “But it’s a very professional competition. The rules are quite strict, and the scoring is quite difficult. We’ve seen some amazing entries.”

Another treat for viewers will be a chance to relive classic matches from Homeless World Cups of yesteryear held in Glasgow, Mexico City and Cardiff, with former football players and famous pundits like Scotland international John Collins and England star Karen Carney, as well as West Ham United’s Michail Antonio and retired Portuguese striker Nuno Gomes, providing comment and analysis.

“A lot of those who are getting involved haven’t been familiar with the Homeless World Cup before,” said Mercado. “And so, filming them watching these games for the first time and looking at the scale of the event was really cool. Because that’s when it really hits them, it’s when they realise that the athletes they’re watching on screen have experienced homelessness, and actually you wouldn’t be able to know and they’re really impressed with the level of football and the fair play.

“Many of the teams didn’t know this would be happening and so when they get a chance to see English Premier League footballers watching and commenting on their game, I can imagine it will be empowering.”

All the pieces slot into place with a series of debates and discussions around the global issue of homelessness, involving high profile and influential names, from Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to actor, and last year’s Homeless World Cup ambassador, Michael Sheen. This is the opportunity, which happens on site at the event when it usually goes ahead, to have substantive, thought-provoking and solutions-orientated conversations about global poverty and homelessness.

With the future of all sporting events in uncertain waters, pulling this together has been a different kind of, but still large scale, undertaking to putting on something that relies so much on physical participation.

“We’ve had so much goodwill and support from other organisations and partners and we’re really excited,” said Mercado. “This is something completely new to us. We’ve never before had a fully digital event. It’s been really challenging, but this is where a lot of people are working from at the moment. Hopefully we won’t be in this situation for much longer but, of course, I think we’ve proven that if such is the case, we will continue to find creative ways to try and voice our issues and ensure that our partners and our players continue to get that spotlight until we can provide them that stage again which is the Homeless World Cup.”

Homeless World Cup Day takes place this Sunday, 5 July. The coverage is free to watch online. Join in at and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Revisit INSP’s coverage of previous Homeless World Cup tournaments here.