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Homeless World Cup kicks off in Rio

 Street News Service 20 September 2019

What do over 400 homeless people from Hong Kong, Finland, Haiti and 40 other countries have in common? They are all competing for the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro this week. (715 Words) - By Danielle Batist

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Homeless World Cup kicks off in Rio

 Teams gather at Copacabana for the opening ceremony. Photo: Danielle Batist

The sound of drums can be heard all over Copacabana beach. The sight of a samba band is nothing out of the ordinary in Brazil's carnival city, but this is not just a celebration. It is the opening parade of the Homeless World Cup, a football tournament that aims to tackle homelessness and social exclusion across the globe.

Wycliffe Muholo is one of the lucky few who made it to this year's tournament in Brazil. The 20-year old goalkeeper from Kenya could not believe his luck when he was selected for the national team. "I have always played football. Hundreds of boys in the slums are competing in local tournaments. One day I was asked to play trials for the Homeless World Cup. It was tough competition, you really had to fight for this chance. When I heard I was going to go to Rio to represent my country, I was very, very happy. Everybody in my slum is really proud of me. We just won our first match, 13-3 against Ghana. We thought they were very good, so beating them boosted our confidence."

Although good results are important to Wycliffe, he believes the tournament is about more than just the Cup. Sitting on the purpose-built stadium benches, he says: "We all have a lot to win here in Rio. I already made friends with people from all over the world. To come out here and play for your country is a big thing. I believe I can do anything now."

Wycliffe's older team mate and captain Patrick Hato says he has seen many boys like Wycliffe boost their self-esteem through football. Unemployed and without proper housing himself, Hato started selling street paper The Big Issue on the streets of Nairobi. When he earned enough money to meet the basic needs, he started up a local football competition to give himself and other less privileged youngsters in the slums some purpose. Now, the 'slum soccer' project works with over 40 teams. To represent Kenya in the Homeless World Cup is the crown on his work, Hato says. "It is amazing to be here. My fellow players see me as a sort of a coach. I am supporting them, but we are all equal in the team." And, with a boyish smile on his face: "We al have the same goal: to take the Cup back to Kenya!"

But it is not all boys talk at Copacabana beach. For the second time in the tournament's eight year history, there is a separate Women's Cup. Skilled female players from Argentina, Haiti, USA, the Netherlands, Norway, Colombia, Mexico, Kyrgyzstan, Uganda, Paraguay, Brazil and India show their stills in the week long play-off. Vijaya Balpande is the manager of the Indian women's team. A doctor by profession, she is well-aware of the challenges some Indian girls face. She says: "For girls in the slum, life can be very tough. Indian society unfortunately still favours men. Many parents prefer to have sons, and girls often don't get treated the same as boys. Girls have little opportunities and a lot of drug and alcohol related problems come from that. Health care, education and job opportunities are lacking, as is self-esteem."

The women's football project aims to provide just that. Before boarding the plane to Rio, the girls from team India got skills training, but also learned about health risks like HIV and addiction. Balpande says it is a new set of 'life skills' that will make the biggest change to the girls' lives. "They learn how to travel, how to play and also how to behave. That is very important. They get the chance to interact with people from all over the world. It will make them think about their own identity and who they want to be."

Balpande might not have a background in football coaching, she does believe she got what it takes to let her team succeed: "We give the girls back their dignity. That's the trophy they will take back to India."

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