Game on for Homeless World Cup

A windswept pitch overshadowed by grim blocks of flats in inner-city Melbourne is about as far from Europe's football stadiums as you can get, both in terms of geography and glamour.

But the players performing passing drills and sprints on the unmarked field in the tough Fitzroy area show all the intensity of professional footballers preparing for a new season in the English Premier League and Italian Serie A.

These players, who have battled alcoholism, mental illness and drug addiction among others, are gearing up for the Homeless World Cup, which will be held in Melbourne in December. Teams from more than 50 countries will travel to the southern Australian city to vie for the trophy, with squads from as far afield as Afghanistan, East Timor, Ivory Coast and Scotland, the reigning champions.

At a weekly training session at Fitzroy, the coach of Australia's Street Socceroos, George Halkias, said the annual event had grown enormously since it was first staged in Austria in 2003. He said lacing on the boots and joining a team was often the first positive social interaction the players had participated in for years, building their self-confidence and helping them cope better with off-field issues.

"It's instrumental in changing people's lives and giving them help," Halkias, a trained psychologist, told AFP. "For many people coming here it is the one constant in their lives. It's somewhere they feel safe, they can come here and get help on and off the pitch and won't be judged. They form friendships with the other players and look out for each other."

Back on track
One of the players, known only as "Bushy", said his involvement in the game had helped get his life back on track after years living on the streets as he moved from city to city. "Being classed as an equal, that's important," he said. "People look at you like you're the scum of the earth when you're on the streets. It was a real eye-opener coming here."

The tournament organisers have a headquarters in Edinburgh that allocates the event to a host city, which then arranges finance, venues and accommodation for the visiting players. The Melbourne tournament, which runs from 1-7 December, is being run by the homeless magazine "The Big Issue" with support from the Victoria state government and corporate sponsors.

Venues include Federation Square in the centre of the city, where a temporary grandstand will be built for an event expected to attract 100,000 spectators through the week. "Giving people a chance to represent their country and having crowds cheering them on, it's a tremendous boost for them," Halkias said.

The rules of street football vary greatly from the regular game. Each team has eight players, four of whom are on the pitch at any one time. Each half lasts for seven minutes and players can be shown a blue card for foul play, meaning they are suspended for two minutes. The standard red card expulsion for serious fouls applies. "It's not about ability, it's about participation, although we do try to build up the skills," Halkias said.

Some of the participants at the 2005 Homeless World Cup in Edinburgh went on to play for semi-professional sides and secured coaching qualifications. Stevie Maloney is following a similar path, attaining a coaching certificate after 12 months in the Street Socceroos programme.

Once a jockey earning a comfortable living, alcoholism saw Maloney lose his job and his family, including son William, now four. He has been sober since becoming involved in the game, allowing him to coach schoolchildren and resume contact with his son.

I've gelled really well with the guys, we've got quite a strong little community here now
Street footballer Stevie Maloney on his experience at the Homeless World Cup

"My life's done a 360, mate," he said. "I'm sober, I've got a roof over my head and I've got my little boy back in my life, so I'm really grateful. It's something to look forward to every week, I've gelled really well with the guys, we've got quite a strong little community here now."

Amazing experience
Halkias is also keen to include women in the programme, such as Sharon, a 41-year-old with a history of mental illness. She admitted she was initially sceptical, but wound up representing Australia at the 2006 tournament in Cape Town. "That was just an amazing experience, I'd never been overseas before," she said.

Bushy was also part of the Australian team in South Africa and at last year's tournament in Copenhagen, trips he said he would never have had a chance to make but for the Homeless World Cup.

Asked how his involvement in football had changed his life, Bushy paused for a moment, then replied with a smile: "I'm getting my own place next week, does that answer your question?"