Michael Sheen and the Homeless World Cup Foundation bring the Homeless World Cup to Cardiff, where all teams contribute players comprised solely of those who have experienced homelessness. He talks to Fedor Tot about the initiative.
How did you get involved in the Homeless World Cup?
It started about four or five years ago, where an organisation called Street Football Wales got in touch with me. They said, “we organise football tournaments and teams for people who have experienced homelessness,” and invited me down. I thought, “why are people wasting their time and money on football for homeless people when they could just be dealing with the issues directly?” I didn’t quite understand it.
So, I spoke to them and saw the brilliance of their ideas. The football is the hook. Football brings people in that might not get involved otherwise. Once they’re there, they start making connections with people, with a bit more of a social network. They gain self-confidence and you can get services to them a lot easier. I saw how that was working and how transformative it was for a lot of people, and as a result, I heard about the Homeless World Cup. Again, I thought, “What? How does that work?” It seems sort of nonsensical in some ways.
I went to the Homeless World Cup in Oslo – I travelled with the Welsh male and female teams. It was amazing – I had an extraordinary experience. When you’re sitting next to people who have gone through what they’ve gone through and they’re sharing their stories, it’s incredible. Ultimately, you’re all together supporting the rest of the team. It breaks down a lot of psychological barriers.
Suddenly, it’s not about them over there. It’s us. You hear what contributes to people finding themselves in difficult circumstances. It’s stuff we can all relate to. Mother died, father died, lost a job – whatever it is, it’s something that is relatable. There’s obviously extreme trauma some people go through that, thankfully, not all of us experience. You also see the effect that putting on a jersey to represent your country has on people. It doesn’t matter if you’re Gareth Bale or if you’re living in a tent on Queen Street. You put that jersey on, and you represent your country.
A lot of these people are travelling for the first time. The experience of going to another country and being welcomed and looked after in that way is a powerful thing. These experiences can be transformative. I saw a woman who was part of the Welsh’s women’s team; I’d heard a bit of her story and the things she had struggled with in the past and the things she was struggling with at that moment. I saw her score a goal for the first time in her life, for Wales. I’ll never forget what that did for her and how that changed her life in many ways. People’s journeys are not straight lines. They’re messy. But an experience like this has an affect for the rest of your life.
So how did Cardiff get the World Cup?
Well, two years ago, we made a bid: it was very competitive, we put a lot of work into it. We said what we were aiming to do – for me, it has always been about not only creating a fantastic tournament, but behind everything must be the idea of a legacy. How can we create effective change around these issues and how can we make the most out of this opportunity?
That seemed to resonate with the organisers, and we got the bid. That’s what has been at the heart of every decision, really: how can we use the platform that the Homeless World Cup gives us to create change?
What happens to the players when the World Cup is over?
Interesting you should say that. I asked if there was a way in the past that we could look at the way it has affected people afterwards. The players are only able to represent their country once. The idea is that this is an experience that is essentially transformative.
The criteria for being able to play and represent is slightly different from country to country. Essentially, within the previous 12 months, if you’ve experienced homelessness or another form of social exclusion then you’re eligible to play. You want to make sure that it’s not the same people coming back each year – but people stay involved, like Wayne, who played a few years ago and is now coach of the Wales team. His story is an extraordinary journey of being given opportunities and running with them every time.
We talk about it being quite a powerful and overwhelming experience and then when it ends, you go back to how things were before and suddenly, there’s no high. There’s a massive comedown. Particularly people who are dealing with substance misuse – the chemicals released in you create a real high, and the comedown can be dangerous in some ways.
So, this year, for the first time, there will be actual tracking and recording evidence of what happens afterwards for the players. We’re going to make sure that there’s some sort of research done into what happens. What I want to do in Wales is make sure that when the football ends, the support doesn’t. Our involvement in this is only the starting point – we only begin when we start to launch things afterwards. We want to make sure that we’re looking at all the opportunities, like the volunteering programmes available. We need to keep that support going and keep the relationship and try and push to get them into work opportunities afterwards.
Homelessness is more visible and present now than it was 10 years ago. How has it changed for you since growing up?
Well, you talk about in the last 10 years and you think that’s around the span of the austerity policies that we’ve been living under since the financial collapse in 2008. In that 10 years, nationwide, we’ve seen a real squeeze. There’s not enough social housing – the right-to-buy scheme that’s allowed a lot of people to buy their own council houses is great, but the fact that lots of social housing hasn’t been replaced is a huge problem.
The goal that we should have is that if homelessness should happen, it should be brief, it should be rare and it should be non-recurring – so that we focus on making sure that if you’re experiencing homelessness it’s for as short a time as possible. A focus on crisis prevention and crisis support, so that emergency accommodation is available. [There’s also] preventative measures. Seeing who is more at risk of becoming homeless and giving them the support at that point. People coming out of the care system, prison, military – preventative measures. It’s not just about taking people off the street and putting them in houses. How do they stay there?
I’ve heard stories of people setting up tents in housing because that is what they feel most safe and comfortable with. You have to support them long-term to stay in that house and the accommodation. Like Housing First, for example. Instead of saying, “you need to sort your issues out before we can give you a house,” it’s the other way around. That is the future.
We have a lot of positive things in place, potentially. The Wales Housing Act of 2014 has made a big difference. That, along with a housing first approach and a push to create more social housing, those things make a real difference.
And finally, who do you think will win the Homeless World cup?
Haha! Well, having seen the teams play, the Latin American teams are hard to beat. They’re tough. Brazil, Mexico, they’re always difficult.
HOMELESS WORLD CUP
Starting on Sat 27 July, 64 men’s, women’s and mixed teams from across the globe will descend on Cardiff for the Homeless World Cup. Competing in 15-minute matches, players will go head-to-head for a week of intense four-a-side games. With goalkeepers confined to their penalty boxes, the rules of this competition are different to the traditional tournament. But the spirit remains, as does the players’ desire to leave the event crowned champions and use it as a stepping stone to change their lives.
Question is, how does this annual event help those facing homelessness and social exclusion? For the men and women’s Welsh teams, Street Football Wales offer support in the 12-week runup to kickoff and in the six weeks following it. From help finding housing to assistance fighting mental illness, players can receive advice at weekly training sessions. Squads competing at the cup can find help is at hand during their training for the tournament, while anyone who is a part of the 40-team league running throughout Wales can seek support as well.
The tournament is designed to inspire as well as support. Keri Harris, founder of Street Football Wales, says players leave the tournament with more self-confidence, better self-esteem and a vastly diminished chance of falling victim to substance misuse. He sees the tournament as a chance to change the country’s perception of those struggling with homelessness, as well as offer support to people looking to change their lives.
As the 17th edition of the Homeless World Cup takes over Cardiff’s Bute Park, Street Football Wales are set to help more than 1,000 players this year alone. In their 16 years, more than 5,000 people have participated in their country-wide league. Players for the cup are selected from this league based on attitude, commitment, and some footballing talent is also a bonus.
Homeless World Cup, Bute Park, Cardiff, Sat 27 July-Sat 3 Aug. Admission: free. Info: www.homelessworldcup.org