Homeless soccer players find a new goal

Homeless soccer players find a new goal

    May 19 2007 at 12:32PM

By Peter Luhanga

Special Correspondent

Squad selections for national teams are a hotly contested matter, and the make-up of the team that will represent South Africa at the annual Homeless World Cup street soccer tournament is no different, except that the debate happens out of the public eye.

But unlike their counterparts representing the country in soccer and rugby, those participating in this international competition see it as the first step on the road to success, rather than as the end prize.

This is because homelessness, or living on the margins of society, is a prerequisite for making the national street soccer team that will travel to the fifth annual competition to be held in Denmark this year.

And the subsequent exposure, boost to confidence and access to international networks allow opportunities for self-development.

This means most players do not remain homeless long after the tournament, disqualifying them from being on the team the following year.

Thus unlike in other sports, appearing on the national squad for only one season is seen as positive.

In fact, the tournament rules allow players to have only a maximum of two appearances on their national team – but two appearances are the exception rather than the norm.

As the countdown to this year’s tournament begins, the Western Cape Street Soccer League (WCSSL) is involved in extensive training sessions in order to whittle down 16 young hopefuls to an eight-member squad that will represent its country at the end of July.

Unfortunately, although the team will represent South Africa, at the moment the players are only being drawn from Cape Town and surrounds as the Western Cape is the only province which has established a formal street soccer league.

"It’s a long-term goal to have a national league," said WCSSL public relations officer Jermaine Cloete.

The league was only initiated after the Homeless World Cup was played in Cape Town last year. Before that, trials were a more informal affair, organised by The Big Issue, a social development organisation linked to the International Street Paper Network (ISPN).

The selection criteria also differ greatly from other sports leagues.

With a focus on developing the potential of the homeless and unemployed, Cloete said a "hardworking spirit" and "commitment" were deemed equal to, if not more important than, sporting prowess.

This criterion ensures that the final team members are individuals who will best use the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform their lives.

Judging from achievements off the field following last year’s event, this approach has paid off.

He said six of the eight players in last year’s team are now studying full time, while the remaining two are permanently employed.

"Last year, the Homeless World Cup changed my life a lot. People around me treated me differently, I became a role model, as most street kids watched me on the national television. (During the tournament) I was not just a street kid, I was a celebrity," said James Steenberg, one of last year’s team members.

Now studying business management at Cape College, Steenberg said participating in the Homeless World Cup was a powerful motivation for many street kids to improve their lives and some of them, he believed, could even have the makings of professional soccer players.

The City of Cape Town needed to broaden its assistance to street kids, he said, and not only focus on the minority of street kids that were housed with charity organisations.

And the city appears to have taken up the challenge.

"The Homeless World Cup is not just about soccer, the focus is on social development ? soccer is used to integrate the kids to grow up into responsible citizens," said city development manager Cornelia Finch.

Partnering with the WCSSL, the city encouraged the use of soccer as a tool to re-integrate street children and the homeless into the community or their families, said Finch.

One former street kid for whom the street soccer league is making a difference is 17-year-old Velile Sithole, who is one of the 16 hopefuls aiming to make this year’s squad.

Currently living at the City Mission shelter in Mitchell’s Plain, Sithole said he has always played some form of soccer while he lived on the streets.

He said he first saw the Homeless World Cup on television last year and jumped at the invitation extended by the WCSSL to all organisations working with street kids to participate in the trials.

He said after a life drifting aimlessly from day to day, he now feels he has a goal.

"I feel like I am now going forward," he said. "I’ve been struggling a lot and this is the one thing that can change my life."

The fifth Homeless World Cup kicks off in Copenhagen on July 29 till August 4, with 46 countries competing.

Last year the South African team came 27th out of the 43 countries which competed for the trophy on the Grand Parade in Cape Town. – West Cape News

    • This article was originally published on page 12 of Cape Argus on May 19, 2007
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