Milan is ready for Sunday's kick-off of the 7th Homeless World Cup – the UEFA-backed international tournament using football to energise homeless people to change their lives.
Some 500 players from 48 nations ranging from Cambodia and Ghana to Germany and Brazil are coming to the Italian city to begin their quest to become homeless world champions – and Homeless World Cup president Mel Young says that his idea has come a long way since it was first hatched in a bar in South Africa with Austrian colleague Harrold Schmidt.
"Both of us really like football and I said that some of our homeless team in Scotland had a semblance of a football team. Harrold said it was the same in Austria – so we decided to play a challenge match. We shook on this over a beer, and by the end of the night we'd invented the Homeless World Cup where everybody could come," said Young, who has been working with the homeless since 1993. "The first [tournament] in 2003 with 18 countries in Graz came way beyond any expectation. We were only going to do the one, but it was so successful that we decided to do it every year since, and it continues to grow."
Now a global phenomenon, the week-long competition is expected to attract some 100,000 spectators to Milan's street soccer stadium at the Arena Civic in Sempione Park, as countries from five continents vie for the crown claimed by Afghanistan in the Australian city of Melbourne last year. Young, however, takes most pride in the tournament's success off the pitch, with more than 70 per cent of participants undergoing a significant life change having played in the competition, such as coming off drugs and alcohol; moving into homes, jobs, education and training; repairing relationships; or becoming coaches and players with semi-pro teams or social entrepreneurs.
"You can see them changing in front of you – going from absolutely nowhere to representing their country," he said. "They're fantastic ambassadors for their country, the way they sing their national anthems, the way they behave, and it's really what sport should be all about. It means so much to them and I always tell them that whether they won it or whether they were last, it's on their CV for ever."
UEFA has provided backing since the competition's inception. For the last decade, UEFA has reinvested fines imposed in UEFA competitions for specific purposes such as humanitarian aid, and social and educational projects, an umbrella under which the Homeless World Cup comes given its strong link with football, its clearly defined goals, and successful use of football as a means of fostering inclusion.
"It's very important we've had UEFA supporting us since the beginning," admitted Young, whose tournament has touched the lives of more than 100,000 players and triggered football programmes in over 70 nations. "It's important that football realises it's not only about all the superstars. I think that UEFA understands this issue and puts a lot of resources into grassroots activities and campaigns like RESPECT and the Homeless World Cup. They really are fantastic partners to have."
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