By Rachel Nostrant
(Reuters) – Hundreds of soccer players from around the world will step on to the pitch on Saturday to compete in the Homeless World Cup, an international competition held this year in California for people living without permanent shelter or in rehab centers.
The 40-team tournament, which runs from July 8-15 at the University of California at Sacramento, is the brainchild of Homeless World Cup Foundation.
The foundation says it has more than 100,000 players in partner leagues across the globe. About 500 of those players will participate in Sacramento.
“Soccer is a unifying force, it’s incredibly powerful and in my view, more generally, it really has a lot of power to tackle some of the most serious problems in the world,” said Mel Young, co-founder of the Homeless World Cup Foundation, which says it offers homeless athletes a community for support and seeks to erase the stigma of homelessness.
Homelessness affects nearly 150 million people worldwide, according to a 2021 report by the World Economic Forum.
To be eligible for the event, now in its 20th year, players need to have been homeless or in rehabilitation centers within the last two years.
The foundation said the players come from a range of situations: refugees, asylum seekers or people forced into shelters or on to the street because of a lack of affordable housing.
Fahrudin Muminovic represented Bosnia and Herzegovina at the 2019 Homeless World Cup in Wales. His father and 150 other people from his village were killed in the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, and he had since spent most of his life in refugee camps.
Sienna Jackson will play for Team USA. She grew up playing soccer, but family conflict forced her to rely on the goodwill of friends, she said, according to a press release from Sacramento State. When necessary, she slept in parks before Sacramento’s Wind Youth Center led her back to soccer and helped her put her life back together.
All participants have been paired with partner organizations in their home countries that provide mental and physical health support, Young said. When ready, players receive help finding work or a home.
“It’s all about helping them move on and change their lives,” Young said.
This is the first time the Homeless World Cup will take place in the U.S. Previous tournaments were in South Africa, France, and Denmark.
There are two different fields of play, the World Cup, which consists of both men’s and co-ed teams, and the Women’s World Cup, featuring women-only matches.
Games are played with four players per side, on a field closer in size to a tennis court than a regular soccer pitch. This leads to faster-paced and higher scoring games, with each lasting for 15 minutes each.
The final match will be held July 15, five days before 32 teams take the field for the 9th annual FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
(Reporting by Rachel Nostrant; Editing by David Gregorio)