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Far too often we take things for granted. This might sound trite and at times can come across as somewhat hypocritical depending on who is saying it, for it is usually referenced as part of a guilt-inducing prose by one who is afforded similar luxuries in life to those to whom they are admonishing. When it comes to the subject of the 2011 Homeless World Cup, perhaps what we will overlook is that the participants, just like those from previous tournaments, are real people with faces, names, personal stories that might never be fully told, and that their involvement is a testament to individual will and determination in an age where poor personal choices doom some of us to an eternal life lived outside the margins. Even the matter of this type of competition taking place–where 64 nations will have teams representing them for seven days of street soccer–suggests those who enact social services through the medium of sport and organize such an international event are not the stereotypical civil servants there just to do a job but people passionate about making a positive difference in the lives of others by going beyond the usual boundaries of their allotted time, talents, and sometimes bank accounts.
Musician and author Dave Bidini highlights these particular aspects in his recent book, Home and Away: The Story of the 2008 Homeless World Cup. Having traveled with Team Canada for the 2008 edition in Australia, Bidini mostly avoids discussing the general issues of the homeless in those participant nations and instead focuses his narrative on the individual stories of the participants and the organizers. He does not attempt to preach to us why we should care more or start taking additional steps to stamp out homelessness in the world but rather Bidini provides tangible substance to personal stories on tales of hardship we might never have fathomed or heard of had such an event as the Homeless World Cup not exist. We are not afforded complete access to some of the details, however, as some of the players for Team Canada would not make Bidini or the team’s representatives privy to such intimate information. For instance, one of Canada’s players will only go by the name “Juventus,” and you get the feeling his story is so private he divulges none of his real truths until it is time to leave Australia, and even then he justifies keeping his cards close to his chest on account of keeping Bidini and the others safe.
This is perfectly acceptable, though, as the thrust of the book is not to pry too much into the lives of those reluctant to disclose how and why they became homeless but to demonstrate there is worth to those who might have already been deemed worthless to the polite societies that have given up on them and that it is worth getting to know them as individuals. The value to be found is not particularly in the football skills of these players–although the 2008 squad for Canada featured a former pro and Canadian national team player since fallen into a rough crowd–nor is it necessarily an instructional guide on how to avoid the traps these individuals fell into so you too do not become homeless or marginalized. Rather, Bidini shows us that something as silly as a game of football can bring out the best in some of us that never thought we had a “best” with which to begin.
Bidini’s emphasis on Krystal certainly illustrates this particular point as he weaves her story of how she came to be a part of Canada’s homeless squad, her interactions with other players at the tournament, the turn from being nervous before her first penalty shot to being the striker of the Australian tournament and being considered for a football program in Holland, to her homecoming. While the Homeless World Cup is not a magic tonic to cure the ills of those who compete, for Krystal it looks to have transformed a kind but less confident person into someone who discovered more about who she was and where she might go if she only believed in herself as those in Australia had finally shown her. Not all of the participants had such an experience, with some still succumbing to the myriad addictions represented there while the event was ongoing, and for Bidini to only focus on the heartwarming tales like Krystal’s would have sugarcoated the perspective we are given too sweetly to be believable. The balance between the sometimes grim realities these players and officials carried with them to Australia in 2008 and the heartwarming moments are maintained to make the book eminently readable without being condescending.
And while you might expect a book about a football tournament held for the homeless either to be exceedingly serious or overly optimistic about what participation in the Homeless World Cup can do for the players to strain credulity, Bidini throws a curve with the surprising amount of humor involved. With chapters titled “Walter Mitty and a Dildo” or “Old Soft Tits,” you eagerly begin reading to find out what on earth he is referencing. These funny bits derive from the players themselves and bring us a little closer to learning of the personalities Bidini encountered on Team Canada and from the event in general. His observations of some of the players are simply hilarious later once you have come to hear about some of their quirks, such as Jerry, the goal-scoring Emile Heskey of Team Canada who was the one responsible for the discussion on dildos earlier in the book. We also are told of Vannie, a goalkeeper drafted into the Canadian squad due to all the injuries to the Canadian players, who simultaneously looks as if he is “falling off the back of a boat” and “being shocked by a cattle prod” while at the same time manning the net like he is Gianluigi Buffon.
Also, we learn of the personal sacrifices those who recruit the teams to compete in the Homeless World Cup make, from hunger strikes by the Italian coach, travel nightmares for India’s team, to the Russian coach’s stern but honest approach to help those who came to him. We see just how desperate some team officials and players are to escape wherever they had come from, regardless of how it might be detrimental to the tournament’s chances for organizers to convince future cities to host something that brings the homeless of other nations within their borders given the potential risks involved. We even discover that the drive for some national coaches to win at all costs even at an competition such as this cannot be suppressed, twisting the impression we get that most of the managers are there for a more noble cause.
The release of Dave Bidini’s work this summer coincides quite nicely with this year’s staging in Paris. Interest should certainly be heightened with legends of football like Eric Cantona speaking about the Homeless World Cup that will take place on the continent, and it should attract more attention from general football fans as all the matches will be streamed online through the organization’s website. National pride is still on the line, but instead of Argentinians awaiting brilliance from Messi or Three Lions supporters wondering why Fabio Capello is consciously choosing to bring anguish to their lives, they can cheer on Cristian Cabral and Courtney Wallace of the men’s teams or look to the women’s teams from the respective nations. As Bidini’s telling of the 2008 Homeless World Cup showed, national pride does not disappear simply because these players are in a different personal or social position than the world class footballers that represent the regular senior FIFA squads. Sometimes it can be accentuated when considering many of the players that will take to the pitch at the Champs de Mars 21-28 August have only this identity to bind them together.
It’s funny what a football and a few people who care can achieve sometimes, even with little money and given even less of a chance to succeed.
You can purchase Dave Bidini’s book, Home and Away: The Story of the 2008 Homeless World Cup, via Amazon in paper or electronic form.
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Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.