True to its name, the annual Homeless World Cup is for and about those who live on the street. Win or lose there are medals for all - this world cup is about turning their lives around. The unusual event, brainchild of Mel Young, is revolutionizing approaches to homelessness around the world.
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Bringing homeless to the world stage via soccer
In my native Scotland, the issue of fairness is part of our DNA. So starting the Scottish edition of “The Big Issue”, a street paper sold by the homeless, and getting involved in homeless causes came naturally to me. I've long believed we need innovative solutions to the extreme economic inequality wrought by globalization. To build a fairer society, a new system is needed.
In 2001, after our conference in Capetown, South Africa, I went out for a beer with my colleague, that’s when we hit upon the idea of a Homeless World Cup. Homeless people often have trouble with attending formal programs. But we thought soccer would be an easy way to engage them; open doors to job training and alcoholism rehab, and returning to a normal life. The next morning, we vowed to carry through. And two years later, in 2003, we organized the first Homeless World Cup, in Graz, Austria.
Life is also about losing. Learning from mistakes is life-changing
Our athletes are typically in their early 20s, although they range from 16 to 70. Their backgrounds vary widely. They come from orphanages, the military, mental hospitals and prisons. Many have alcohol and substance abuse issues. But we never criticize or judge. We just ask, “Wanna play football?” and welcome them in.
Once they start coming to practice, they naturally open up about themselves and start to build self-respect. Homeless people don't believe they will succeed at anything. Even world-class athletes lose sometimes. What makes them great is that they learn from defeat about how to win next time. Losing is part of life. That's something we need homeless people to grasp; learning to lose.
We give every participant a medal. The point is not about creating a wonderful football competition, nor about winning or losing. It's about changing people's lives. In fact, 70% of our participants say the program has dramatically changed their lives. They are going to work, returning to school and finding new meaning in their lives.
Using the power of soccer, I want to make as big an impact as possible
Our participation has grown to 100,000 men and women a year, in 74 countries. Our goal is 10 million players. Participants are only allowed to compete in the world cup once, because the purpose is to get them off the street. But a lot of our alumni not only return to society but also come back to us as team managers, serving as important leaders and role models.
I aim to increase the number of countries participating, and to expand our world cup venues in Asia. We have also started an important new initiative, the Homeless World Cup Supporters Club. Similar to a football fan club, membership fees will be used to support homeless people.
Anyone can play soccer anywhere. It is truly a world sport. That's why I believe football has the power to improve life for homeless people.
Published “The Big Issue” in Scotland, a street paper sold by homeless people around the world; then organized the Homeless World Cup in 2003. From a start of 18 countries, the event now attracts participation from 74 countries. Luminaries from the international sports world, including world-class athletes and elite soccer clubs, serve as partners and sponsors. During his flights, Mel's affable personality often wins him new world cup supporters from among his fellow passengers.