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Kicking the ball forward: can football change the world?

 Street News Service 11 July 2019

It is the king of sports and not just because of the multi billion industry behind it. Football is simple - all you need is a ball. It’s a game loved by rich and poor, but does it have the power to lift those at the bottom out of poverty, or even make them rich? With the Homeless World Cup about to start, Inês Santinhos Gonçalves looks at the power of a ball to create change. (1460 Words) - By Inês Santinhos Gonçalves

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Local school children attend a soccer team training session on a dirt ground located under power lines in Soweto, Johannesburg. Photo: REUTERS/David Gray

"Football's capacity to reach, engage and mobilise the most marginal and the most excluded groups in society is incredibly important", says Davide Goldblatt, writer, broadcaster and author of The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football.

Goldblatt believes that sports, not just football, offer opportunities for social mobility and recognition of talent that very few other channels offer. Although this can appeal to everyone, it is youngsters, particularly boys, from less developed backgrounds that seem most receptive to this, says Goldblatt. "That's the extraordinary thing about sports: when push comes to shove, talent will shine - whoever you are, wherever you're from, whatever leg up you have or had, if you're good, you're good. It's a brilliant thing".

It's not all roses, however, as the expert points out. "For every one boy that makes it, there are thousands that don't make it". What happens to them? Goldblatt says they have to invest in their education, which is often not a priority and the football industry shares some blame for that. "Football as an institution is often pretty anti-education and anti-intellectual and it almost glories in that. It's not that you should take your education seriously in case you don't make it in football, you should take your education seriously - full stop. Even if you make it as a footballer, it helps to be educated, it's a difficult world with a lot of people who would like to screw you and you're going to assume a position of public responsability and exposure".

We all heard the story of the boy who came from a humble background, was spotted as a potencial player and turned out to became rich and famous. Some of the best players in the world match this profile: Cristiano Ronaldo, Maradonna, Rivaldo.

According to Peter Alegi, professor of World History of Sport and African History at Michigan State University, USA, that story is known all too well in Africa. And if it is an encouraging one, it is also a tale that hides some dangers. "It gives people hope that there can be a better future. If you don't have hope it's very difficult to achieve any self improvement", says Alegi.

"The problem", he continues "is that that story becames fetichised, I see it in the African continent all the time. Even the little kids now seem to play the game more to become the next Didier Drogba than to become a good footballer and a citizen with opportunities. I think there is a danger in making too much of that idea of the poor boy with no shoes that becames a superstar".

Self worth

So football can encourage kids from poor backgrounds to work towards a goal and believe they can achieve something. But if you are a grown man, sleeping rough on the streets, how can playing in a team with a bunch of other homeless people help you? "It gives you a bit of solidarity, a bit of self worth, a bit of discipline, a bit of regularity in your life, friendship, camaraderie", says David Goldblatt.

Peter Alegi believes there are two main benefits: health and social improvement. "The phisical well-being is extremely important, especially if you come from a background where you don't have the time, the money or the resources to keep fit. Also the social aspect of playing football is extremely important because when you are dealing with the suffering of struggling day to day to survive you tend to feel alone - to have the strength of your teamates and support of the organisers is crucial".

But Alegi also points at the danger of "over-romanticizing" social sports events such as the Homeless World Cup. He says the competition element of sports games means that people can become too fanatic and start fighting with other players. Also, he argues because homeless people tend to have lower self-esteem, they can feel a defeat more harshly than a regular player. "If the team doesn't do well, you can reinforce negative visions that people have of themselves: 'you'll never going to be successful, you're not good enough for a regular life'".

Jonathan Magee, a sociologist and senior lecturer from University of Central Lancashire, United Kingdom, coached one of teams that took part in the first Homeless World Cup in 2003, in Austria. He wrote several academic papers on the subject and was able to identify the most significant differences between this tournament and other football competitions.

"These players had much more serious issues to deal with than worry about things like making a poor pass or missing an open shot on goal. So they had to be cajoled slowly into devolping an interest in football", the former coah remembers.

Magee still keeps in touch with four players from the street football team. They are all "doing better than in 2003" but only one continued to play football and participated in other editions of the tournament. The sociologist believes that, although taking part in the Homeless World Cup is a meaningfull experience for the participants, it needs to be complemented with other kinds of support.

"Integrating football with social rehabilitation services is fundamental to maximise the programme the players are engaging with. If football is left isolated the impact will be minimal. Attending a Homeless World Cup as a one off tournament will have less potential than regular attendance at street soccer programmes, as part of a broader rehabilitation." The player who is still involved with football was able to take more benefits from the experience and do better for myself than the others, says Magee.

Common language

One of the greatest aspects of football is that, like music, it is a language that most of us understand. And in that sense, it can be used as a platform to communicate, to raise awarness, something the Homeless World Cup has done "remarkably well", says Peter Alegi.

"The constituency of sports fans is not generally a group of folks that pay close attention to the issues", the professor admits. Football can be the perfect medium to reach out to a great number of people who did not pay a lot of attention to the struggle of homeless people. It can raise social and political awarness, as it once did in South Africa. "Once the football teams, the rugby teams and the cricket teams of South Africa were excluded from international competitions, millions and millions of sports fans were suddenly made aware of what was taking place with the apartheid, in ways that they were not aware and may never become aware because they didn't read the newspapers and were not politically conscient".

Apart from this ability to engage people in a good cause, Alegi believes the Homeless World Cup is an opportunity for the spectators to watch a different kind of football, one that is not owned by big corporations, or FIFA, and one that doesn't have such an intense media glare. "This is a kind of football that focuses on the sport itself. It's probably closer to the spirit of play, as opposed to the spirit of profit, wich is clearly what drives global football today".

Jonathan Magee agrees: "People should go to the Homeless World Cup purely for the experience of being there. They will see a totally different tournament, one that is not wrapped up in its own importance, like the FIFA World Cup or the Olympics. This tournament is about helping disadvantaged and marginalised people, whereas almost all sports tournaments are about pandering to the elite to see who is the best.

The Homeless World Cup kicks off on the 21 of August, right under the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The tournament lasts for a week and all the matches are free to attend; the only thing you need to do is turn up and cheer. Magee, who in 2003 was able to see for himself just how worthwhile it is, garantees that people won't be disappointed: "Anyone who attends will come away entertained, humbled and full of respect. People may think twice about walking past a street paper vendor and looking the other way".

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