Representing INSP at my first Homeless World Cup at this year’s tournament in Cardiff, I quickly realised that, logistically, the experience was a lot like going to a music festival. Apart from anything, the event site itself is built like one: what would be the ‘stages’ (three pitches for matches, and a literal stage for the evening music programme) were dotted about the area of Bute Park that was playing host, while situated in between were food vendors, toilets, activities for children, marquees, awareness and fundraising stalls, and other aspects extra-curricular to the football itself, around which visitors and spectators milled about throughout the day. Tasking myself with taking in at least one match played by each of the nations with teams affiliated to street papers – Ireland, Switzerland, Greece, Australia and Korea – and trying to fit in some other favourites – Scotland, Mexico, Peru, India – I began rushing and zig-zagging from pitch to pitch, much like trying to catch your favourite artists and bands at a festival (at least if you’re as feverishly desperate to make the most of one as me). Sometimes it meant catching a half here and a half there to maximise variety.
As the day wound down, I found myself with a dilemma. I was still to watch Australia’s Street Socceroos in action, having missed their earlier face-off against India. Frustratingly, their second and final game (against Croatia) was to clash with Korea’s only participation in day six of the tournament – a match versus Hong Kong.
Formulating a plan, I intended to take in a half each, out of fairness and solidarity with my street paper colleagues, and in doing so I found immense solidarity at both games.
First on pitch three, for a 6pm kick off, it was Australia taking on Croatia. It was late in the day – these were the final few scheduled matches – and the sun, which had beamed down constantly, providing hot, difficult conditions for playing soccer, was beginning to set.
Taking a seat, the squad were getting set pitch-side – two inflatable kangaroo mascots had been given front-row seats. As the players took to the four-a-side AstroTurf field, a familiar chant broke out from an oncoming crowd.
“Aussie Aussie Aussie…oi oi oi!”
It was the Greek team, made up of players from Shedia’s street soccer project, who I had spoken to earlier that day, showing up to support their street paper peers.
The Big Issue Australia’s state operations manager, and Street Socceroos coach, Andrew Joske had told me that when the two sides had met earlier in the week, the usually jovial and friendly atmosphere of other games at the tournament was exemplified ten-fold, as Greeks and Australians alike mingled on the sideline, instead of the usual team splits that naturally appear. Regardless of what team scored, all players celebrated together. The street paper link and the connectedness of shared experiences seemed to overwhelm any other feeling.
It’s something that struck me immediately upon arriving at the Homeless World Cup. Yes, some teams took it more seriously than others, and some players were less gracious in defeat, allowing their passions and competitiveness to boil over. Of course you want to win. But ultimately, there was an overriding spirit of fair play (something the Australian team were recognised for), understanding and camaraderie, something often missing from the glitz and glamour of professional soccer, an inclusiveness completely erased by international soccer tournaments given to the highest bidder, no matter how unwelcoming or divisive.
Aussie Aussie Aussie! The Street Socceroos have done our country proud by taking home the FIFPRO Fair Play Award at the @homelesswrldcup 2019 ⚽🏅🇦🇺
— The Big Issue (@thebigissue) August 5, 2019
Through all the visible joy, I almost forgot to watch the football. The half ended with the Street Socceroos five goals down. It didn’t matter. Smiles plastered every face; everyone felt like a winner.
A hop, skip and jump away was Korea’s game with Hong Kong on pitch one, with a tight 1-0 scoreline for the Koreans to attempt to overturn in the second half.
In their stylishly retro kit, the team equalised within two minutes, and hit another quickfire strike to storm into the lead.
Amazingly, this felt like a game played on home soil. A group of Korean students from Edinburgh had fundraised their way to Cardiff and, as they broke out into songs and chants, you could tell that it meant a lot to the players, their performance visibly lifted by this very vocal support and their charming homemade placards.
Back on level terms at 2-2, a rapid end-to-end counter attack and sublime finish saw the Koreans take a late lead. The final opportunity of the game fell to their opponents, but the guilt-edged chance was missed. The ball slid away and the whistle blew for full-time, followed by yelps and cheers from the pitch and crowd.
It was a sweet note to end the day on. Two teams of players, all of different backgrounds, some looking for something life-changing, others just hoping for a few good games of football a long, long way from home, finding commonalities and experiences that will always stay with them. It is a good reminder that, while the publication and sale of street papers are at the core of these organisations, the people behind them do so much other good work to lift individuals out of poverty and hardship.