It is now over 13 years since Paris was bathed in blue, white and red as the French celebrated a triumphant climax to their very own FIFA World Cup™. Yet when it comes to fairy tales, even the heroics of Zizou and Co would pale beside some of personal stories being played out at another recent global showpiece in the City of Lights.
The venue this time might have been the Champs de Mars rather than the Stade de France; while the crowds numbered in hundreds rather than tens of thousands. But eight years on from the tournament’s inception, the life-changing impact of the Homeless World Cup continues to amaze.
As Mel Young, the tournament’s president and co-founder, explained: “The impact of this competition is profound. It has engaged over 100,000 homeless people since it started, with participants changing their lives for the better.”
Ending homelessness altogether is the ambitious aim of tournament organisers, but for the moment they pride themselves in the knowledge that over 70 per cent of players have gone on to change their lives for the better. For some, that has meant rebuilding relationships with family and friends; for others overcoming addictions and finding accommodation, education and employment. Some have even made a career in the beautiful game as players and coaches, including the notable example of Bebe, the Manchester United attacker on loan at Besiktas.
The Homeless World Cup itself has grown beyond recognition since the first edition – the brainchild of Young, co-founder of The Big Issue Scotland, and Harald Schmied, editor of Megaphon, a street newspaper in Austria – was hosted by Graz, Austria in 2003. Since then, the competition has been staged on four different continents, with this latest edition involving no fewer than 64 men’s and women’s teams from across the world.
Fittingly, French FIFA World Cup winners Lilian Thuram and Emmanuel Petit were on hand to lend their backing but, unlike in 1998, the silverware did not remain in Paris. Instead, two seemingly unlikely world champions - Scotland and Kenya - were crowned in the male and female events respectively.
There was also an uncanny symmetry to the teams’ success stories, with both overcoming Mexico in their finals by an identical 4-3 scoreline. The silver medalists will have the opportunity to go one better on home soil next year when Mexico City hosts the 2012 Homeless World Cup, but for now the champions are revelling in their success.
"What a wonderful result,” was the reaction of Scotland’s manager Ally Dawson, a former international himself. “The team has done themselves and Scotland proud and deserve every bit of credit they receive. They are worthy winners."
Midfielder Matthew Ramsay, 20, also provided a poignant reminder of the tournament’s ultimate purpose. He said: "I became homeless after falling out with my mum. But she has sent me a text and told me she wants to see me when I get back after hearing about what I have achieved."
The final word went to Young, who after congratulating the winners and lauding the “astounding football” on show in the French capital, thanked the participants for continuing the sensational success story of this remarkable event.
"It is the players and managers of the national teams who made this a fantastic tournament,” he said. “Their spirit and determination is destroying the stereotype and stigma of homelessness and creating real and lasting change around the world."