Football Makes a Difference
The organisation of Ukraine’s national Homeless World Cup team is through a charity in Odesa by the name of The Way Home. At the time of its founding in 1996, their main objective was to provide “comprehensive medical and psychological rehabilitation, as well as social adaptation of homeless adults, street kids, and drug users.” This has not changed, and closely connected to and supported by UNICEF, the Queen of Sweden’s Charitable Children’s Foundation, Elton John’s Charitable Foundation, along with many others, the Homeless World Cup is just one more way The Way Home can help fulfil their charitable mandate.
The first ever Homeless World Cup took place in 2003, and uniting 18 nations, Graz, Austria was the place. From there it went on to Gothenburg, Sweden where the list of participating teams went up to 29. Edinburgh hosted the Cup in 2005, but it wouldn’t be until 2006, when the host city was Cape Town that the number of players – totalling 496 – and the number of nations – totalling 48 – would be the highest they’d ever been. In 2007, the Cup went on to Denmark, and then Melbourne, Australia the following year. But as far as successful matches go, not only for the organisation but also Ukraine, 2009 was the biggest and best so far. Especially since Ukraine took home the trophy after struggling it out between 500 players.
This year, with 64 national teams taking part in the 2010 World Cup on Copacabana Beach, Rio, Brazil, the competition, which takes place between 19 – 26 September, is going to be tougher than ever. Live updates will be shown on the Homeless World Cup website (www.homelessworldcup.org) and the championship final will be broadcast live on various channels throughout the world. So as this year’s eighth annual World Cup draws ever nearer, the 2009 reigning champions head off in defence of their title. There, they will face two group rounds, playoffs, and hopefully a return of the Cup to the country it found residence all last year. But as the team’s manager OlegVannik and coach Yuriy Buchakov well know, “this is football, and only the best man wins.” I caught them just before they flew out with their team to Rio this week, and as both Oleg and Yuriy have a deep affiliation for this sport, they were optimistic and positive and felt as though they had a good chance.
Dig In and Do Something about It
Ukraine’s national team was formed as a result of a number of qualifying games most of which were played in Kyiv. But even before the current members could sign up to play, they had to meet a number of criteria:
• Be at least 16 years old
• Not have taken part in any of the previous World Cups
• To have been homeless at some point after the last games, make their current living as a street paper vendor, be an asylum seeker, or currently enrolled in drug or alcohol rehabilitation as well as being homeless in the last two years
With more than 20,000 homeless people all over the country to date, there was some competition just to get on the national team. But with some of the best representatives from numerous cities, this year players come from Kyiv, Odesa, Zhitomir, Vinnitsa, Bela Tserkva, and Veshnyoviy.
One of the most unique things about this hands-on approach to homelessness has to do with the individual’s willingness to do something about his situation, and as studies usually conducted six months after each World Cup consistently shows, 70 percent of players experience significant life changes after playing. Whether it is being able to move into a home, find a job, acquire training or education, repair damaged relationships, or quit drugs and/or alcohol, the changes they make in their lives, are in large part due to their participation. In fact, coach Yuriy Buchakov knows full well about these life-affirming results, having met the criteria to be involved in the Homeless World Cup himself just a few back. Both Yuriy and Oleg say that, “there is no greater emotional lift than that which we get from these games. They communicate with people who have faced the same problems all over the world.” So as far as Ukraine goes, he is by far one of the most striking examples of success.
An Em-Pathetic Response
In support of this fight for the most basic of needs, the founder and president of the Homeless World Cup, Mel Young, has also enlisted the help of UEFA, Nike, Vodafone and others. Famous footballer Eric Cantona has even volunteered as the Cup’s Ambassador, and world class footballers such as Rio Ferdinand and Didier Drogba have also offered their invaluable support.
Unfortunately, while Vannik and Buchakov have tried several times to get help from the top football clubs here in Ukraine, their answer has been a resounding “no” or else there has been no answer at all. Oleg thinks “this is because Ukraine has a very negative attitude when it comes to the homeless or people facing life-threatening situations in general.”
While attempts at raising awareness within the country certainly didn’t stop at football players, trying to find other sponsors proved just as tricky. In reference to what they have received to date, Oleg says, “The government, under the insistence of the Odesa Mayor, has provided funding for plane tickets to two Cups (including this year), and the Ukrainian Football Federation has also helped out by offering us football uniforms.” But because the government doesn’t want to admit that “these kinds of social issues exist, that is all we have received from governmental agencies so far.”
Regardless of the reality, the team, which has done remarkably well in various European tournaments this year, is taking their talent to Rio. There they will face opponents from 64 other nations, where games of 14 minutes, each with a one minute interval in between halves, will be played. And playing what is called Street Soccer, the play rules, including only four players on the court at any given time, are almost as many as what you might see in UEFA games.
Next year’s Cup will take place in Paris, France and triggering grassroots initiatives in over 70 nations around the world, it is successful because it reaches tens of thousands of people every year. Here in Ukraine, both manger and coach agree that it is important to participate not only because “there are so many people who know nothing about Ukraine,” but because “there is a great happiness the comes with being able to change the lives of our players, which then gives them the opportunity to change their lives.”
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