“We can see the effect the Homeless World Cup is having on their souls”

Ever since the idea for an international football tournament for homeless players was floated at the INSP summit in Cape Town 14 years ago, street papers worldwide have been closely connected to their Homeless World Cup teams.

This week in Amsterdam, INSP has bumped into some familiar faces from across the street paper network, who are here to guide their national squads to victory.

Shedia's Chris Alefantis Photo: Laura Smith

Chris Alefantis, editor of Greek street paper Shedia, is heading up his country’s football team. As the street paper originally grew out of the Greek street soccer programme, Chris said he is proud to have vendors playing in the tournament, especially as two of them are women.

“We can see every single day the effect this great event is having on their souls,” he added after his team played Hong Kong, losing by a five-goal margin.

“We’ve said it straight from the beginning that we are not necessarily here to become better footballers, we’re here to become better people. They will take strength and energy from this event and take it back to their lives in Greece.

“Yes we lost 2-7 but they are just happy to be out there and be visible and happy.”

This is only the second year that Greece has entered the tournament. South Korea, on the other hand, are attending the Homeless World Cup for their sixth consecutive year. The country’s street football programme is run by The Big Issue Korea.

South Korean manager Changyong Lee Photo: Laura Smith

Changyong Lee played for the South Korean team in the 2013 tournament in Poznan, and attended Santiago in 2014 as the team’s coach.

In the past, The Big Issue Korea helped him find housing, and he now works on the organisation’s sports programme. As team manager this year, he’s helping others to follow in his footsteps.

“We run many different projects for vendors as well as football, like literacy classes, a band and even ballet classes,” added Chang. “When people on the outside see homeless people doing something like this, it helps change their minds about them.”

Chang found players for his team by contacting 500 homeless shelters across South Korea. From around 50 candidates, 12 players were selected to travel to Amsterdam.

While this is the first year there have been no Big Issue vendors on the team, Chang said the players all have slept rough on the streets and are in temporary housing. He added that the street paper started running its own football league earlier this year.

Despite today’s 0-7 loss to Denmark, and the continuing rain, Chang said his players felt optimistic and that, in the spirit of the tournament, winning isn’t everything.

Arkady Turin, editor of St Petersburg street paper Put Domoi and manager of the Russian team, agreed that the tournament is important to his players, whatever the outcome. “This is a big deal for them. They have all had very hard lives back in St Petersburg, so this is a good opportunity.”

On Tuesday, his players enjoyed a tour of the legendary Ajax Stadium in Amsterdam and will return today for another treat. “We are taking them to the Celtic vs. Ajax match this week. They will enjoy it,” Arkady added.

The start of the tournament was a highlight for Ireland’s Big Issue editor Sean Kavanagh who has managed the Irish team for many years.

Hollywood actor, and fellow Dubliner, Colin Farrell paid a surprise visit to the tournament on Saturday and joined his countrymen for a practice session. He even found time to pose with a copy of the Irish street paper, which he said he had bought in the past back in Dublin.

“It’s great that they have his support because it’s very hard to get any back home. They all like what we do but when it comes to actively supporting us with cash it doesn’t come through so we do face difficulties keeping Irish Street League going,” said Sean. “Having Colin on board as a patron can open doors for us.”

If you’d like to see more of what’s happening on the pitch, check out match highlights here.