Faux World Cup Draws Attention To Homelessness

Teams of homeless soccer players representing nearly 60 nations gathered in Brazil this month for a faux World Cup designed to raise awareness about homelessness and offer those in need a way out.

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This month, teams from nearly 60 nations gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to compete in the 8th Annual Homeless World Cup. Players include recovering addicts, the homeless and the formerly hopeless. The tournament seeks to improve the lives of its players through sports. And there's a newcomer to the soccer field this year: Team Palestine.

NPR's Sam Greenspan reports.

SAM GREENSPAN: Watching from the bleachers above Copacabana Beach, you'd have no idea that this anything but a normal street style soccer tournament. Dozens of flags of the represented nations encircle the arena, and fans cheer on in a number of languages.

Unidentified Group: (Singing foreign language)

GREENSPAN: Down on the pitch is a fierce four-against-four match as players kick the ball from one side to the other, ricocheting it off the sides of the ring before the striker can run up and launch it between the goalposts. But this isn't just any normal soccer tournament.

Unidentified Man: You're watching the Homeless World Cup 2010, Rio de Janeiro.

GREENSPAN: The Homeless World Cup, in this tournament, it's not just the other team that players are trying to defeat in rapid-fire 40-minute games. It's homelessness for everyone across the globe.

Mel Young is the co-founder of the Homeless World Cup. More than a single event, it's actually a nonprofit organization that works with local groups worldwide to develop soccer teams alongside of whatever services they might already provide.

Young says that just being part of a team and having a sense of purpose and belonging is enough to help someone re-enter society, and he's seen it happened, even in his hometown in Scotland.

Mr. MEL YOUNG (President, Homeless World Cup): I get on the bus in Invergowrie(ph), where I live, and the bus driver goes, oh, hi, Mel. I'm one of the players in the Scottish team, and I was homeless and so on. And I went, oh, yeah, yeah. I recognized him, and then he says, yeah, I got the job as a bus driver. I got a house now. I'm engaged to be married, and my life has completely changed because I started playing football. And we have made an impact through football in his life, and he's used football to change it, and it's a significant change.

GREENSPAN: Which is all to say there's no money to be won here. Funding comes from Nike and the United Nations, among others, who pay for the training, travel and uniforms of more than 500 players.

But for Lisa Wrightsman, who plays for the USA women's team, having a team to belong to is its own reward.

Ms. LISA WRIGHTSMAN: It's the reason to stay sober. You know, I mean, like knowing where - like, I was in jail, like, 10 or 11 months ago. I know where drugs and alcohol took me. I didn't expect to have fun in recovery.

GREENSPAN: Wrightsman is now in a program that's helping her get back on her feet. But there's a difference between being homeless and not having a homeland. For the first time in the cup's eight-year history, there's a team for Palestine, made up of players from refugee camps in Lebanon.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENSPAN: The Palestinian team is a pack of darting, weaving limbs that keeps the ball flying from end to end. Their opponent in this game is Hong Kong with a tightly woven defense that keeps the ball from getting too close. Palestine takes its time, passing the ball back and forth, looking for an opening, and then...

(Soundbite of whistle)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of applause)

GREENSPAN: ...they score.

Ismael Mashaal plays striker for the Palestinian team. He has no job waiting for him back home.

Mr. ISMAEL MASHAAL: I'm still a student, study, but when I finish my study, I can't work in Lebanon. When I finish my study, I have to find another country, like United Arab Emirates, Canada, Australia, USA. It's difficult because I'm Palestinian.

GREENSPAN: For Mashaal's team, the competition is about putting Palestine on the map, figuratively, if not literally.

Back on the soccer pitch, the Palestinian team wins this game, beating out Hong Kong 8-2.

After shaking hands and hugging the players from Hong Kong, the teammates kneel and press their foreheads on the turf in a brief moment of thanks.

Sam Greenspan, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

(Soundbite of music)

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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