The fourth annual Homeless World Cup kicked off on Sunday 24 September, with over 500 participants from 48 countries descending on Cape Town, South Africa to battle for the crown.

It is a tournament that has grown in popularity and momentum during its short existence and, this year, local fans will see traditional powerhouses such as Brazil, France and England face up to less well-known football nations such as Rwanda and Afghanistan.

Among the favourites are two-time winners and reigning champions Italy, although South Africa will be among those aiming to prevent the Italians mounting a successful defence of their title, with the hosts having started their campaign with a hard-fought 2-1 win over Chile in the tournament's opening game.

The Homeless World Cup, which was first held in Austria in 2003, is the brainchild of Mel Young and Harald Schmeid. The pair wanted to find a way to help people in adverse circumstances - such as the homeless, asylum seekers and street-paper vendors - to unite and find a way to address being marginalised in society.

The beautiful game, according to Young, represented the ideal vehicle. "Football has an amazing power to involve people and change people's lives," he said. "And this power can have positive social changes."

Most importantly, the tournament has had a phenomenal impact on its players. Since last years World Cup in Edinburgh alone, 77 per cent of the participants have made what are described as 'significant, constructive changes' to their lives. 

Lending a helping hand
The football fraternity is also embracing this fledgling four-a-side tournament.

This year's tournament, for example, was opened by one of the world game's true greats, Portuguese legend Eusebio, and the former Manchester United and England international winger Lee Sharpe will this week be hosting a training workshop for the players.

Local club Kaizer Chiefs are also getting in on the act of welcoming the participants by sending two of their star players to help with the event.

Although unable to attend due to their club's domestic and European commitments, Sir Alex Ferguson and Rio Ferdinand are major supporters of the Homeless World Cup, with Manchester United having helped with the coaching and training of the English team. Early signs are that England could be set to reap the rewards from this, with an emphatic 10-0 win over Hong Kong ensuring that they opened their campaign in some style.  

What is evident already is that the standard of football is considerably higher this year than in previous editions. Young believes that this, plus the generally evenly-matched games, can be attributed to the players' determination to train and get fit for the big event, one everyone hopes and expects will prove a roaring success.