THERE was something very unsettling about sitting in the conservatory of a luxury hotel and enjoying a hearty breakfast as you watched the centre of George Square, Glasgow prepare for the Homeless World Cup. Unsettling because the night before, I was a little unhappy that the water brought to my room was not sparkling and the tea was Earl Grey not English Breakfast, as requested. As I studied the impressive tableaux before me take shape, a voice in my ear said to me: “Get a life, for Christ’s sake”.
Seeing members of the 60-odd teams walking around Glasgow, taking “selfies” and enjoying some form of mild celebrity – Bulgaria and Hungary were clearly enjoying themselves – was a humbling experience for somebody who has enjoyed a relatively comfortable life compared to that endured by some of the young people taking part in the HWC 2016. Actually, humbling is probably not the word I was searching for – red-faced with shame is probably more appropriate after my remonstrations about beverages in my hotel room.
In the developed world, indeed any world, homelessness should not exist in the 21st century. We all feel uncomfortable about the word, because it is something we all fear. We see it in different ways, but when I told people I was going to Glasgow to see the HWC, initially they didn’t believe that such a competition existed and then they asked, “how do they afford to take part in that?” and made snipes along the lines of, “take a peg for your nose”.
Comments such as these confirm that we merely associate homelessness with cardboard boxes and dereliction around railway arches. The hard-nosed among us brush the subject away with suggestions that some homelessness is self-inflicted. Such reactions made me all the more determined to attend this year’s HWC in Scotland. I’m no philanthropist, and I am selective about charitable support, but this is a subject that pricks my conscience more than most causes.
The Homeless World Cup was the brainchild of Mel Young, the man who launched The Big Issue in Scotland. At first glance, Young looks like a distant relative of Scottish football icon Kenny Dalglish, but he’s become almost as legendary as “King Kenny” for his work with homeless people.
Young was in good company in George Square, an area that bears witness to Glasgow’s contribution to Britain’s industrial and social history. The City Chambers, which sits at the head of the square, is an imposing and beautiful Victorian construction, its exterior matching an interior that smacks of 19th century confidence and swagger – an example of opulent municipality. The square itself has statues of worthies like Robert Peel and James Watt, men whose ideas transformed lives.
The same goes for Mel Young, who was recently appointed as chair of SportScotland. He founded the Homeless World Cup in 2003 and it has grown to become broadly recognised across the globe. It’s got as far as the United Nations and Ban ki Moon, the general secretary of the UN, who sent a message praising the competition as a considerable “social movement”.
It was certainly a big event in Glasgow on a drizzly and humid Sunday. Being Scotland, there was only one way the teams could be introduced to the crowd, by whirling bagpipes. The 48 men’s and 16 women’s teams were piped into the arena for the opening ceremony, a colourful spectacle with the flags of all nations on display. All countries bar one were heartily cheered, the exception being England. “Let’s keep it positive, Ladies and Gentlemen,” pleaded the announcer, whose wishes were granted for the rest of the day. The jeering was good natured, in the spirit of the occasion, and when England later met Russia, there was no barracking and, unlike Euro 2016, no crowd trouble!
The opening games on the main arena both involved Scotland, the men kicking off the HWC 2016 against Hong Kong. The Scots ran our 8-4 winners, with an experienced head orchestrating affairs at the back and scoring a brace of goals to help the hosts to a comfortable win. His name was Benyamin Aghaei, a 37 year-old from Iran. He was the man of the match against Hong Kong and told me that he had “played a bit” when I congratulated him on his performance. Likewise, the Scottish women had a stand-out player in the diminutive Karren Boggie, who was nippy, skilful and a real leader. Scotland beat Norway 11-1 in the first women’s game of the tournament.
Then it was the turn of Denmark to face an ebullient South Africa, who danced their way into the arena. The Danes, who had a tricky player in Ken Andkjaer Flindt, were well supported and should have won, but they threw the game away, losing 4-3.
To some, the result was less important than actually being there and being proud to represent their country. National anthems were sung with a verve and emotion not found in senior football. There was also skill on display – Chile passed the ball around with precision and energy against Slovenia, running out 17-0 winners. You got the feeling that Chile may have a say where the HMW goes this year.
I was especially touched by the Cambodians. They had the smallest fellow in the competition in Minea Chan, an 18 year-old who was a determined ball-player, willing to challenge Finnish players who had considerably more body mass than him. Chan, when he wasn’t cajoling his team-mates or (seemingly) complaining, had an excellent 14 minutes against a robust Finland. I shook his hand after the game and he smiled, put his hands together and bowed in acknowledgement. You couldn’t help but be moved by these youngsters.
There is so much to be impressed about the Homeless World Cup, and it is an event that needs support for future years. The teams have to fund their trips, by all accounts, but when they are in town, they are looked after. That sort of backing requires hard work on the part of the people behind the scenes.
It’s also richly entertaining. Notwithstanding that some of these footballers have tales of deprivation, drug addiction, crime, neglect and abuse somewhere in there, they play with a sense of joy that we’ve long forgotten existed in some corners of top level football. I saw one women in tears as the opening ceremony unfolded before our eyes and I went away from day one with my faith in human nature strengthened. One thing is certain, this won’t be the last Homeless World Cup that I attend. I just wish I could have stayed longer.
Report by Neil Jensen