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March 12, 2019 | by  | in Features Homepage | [ssba]

Homeless World Cup

There is a football competition for “people who are unlucky”, Jaka Arisandy told me, his hair perfectly coiffed and swished to the side. It was September 2018 and I was in Indonesia, as an assistant for an external evaluation of Rumah Cemara, the Homeless World Cup’s National Partner there.


Jaka’s parents were separated, an alarming anomaly in conservative and Muslim Indonesia. He was living on the streets with a drug dependency, something he found hard to talk about—he kept turning the conversation back to soccer.


He heard about a soccer tournament, tried out for the team, and ended up playing in Amsterdam, where the Indonesian team won the third tier of the tournament. The next year, he returned to the tournament, as a referee this time, in Glasgow. He refereed again in Oslo in 2017 and in Mexico City in 2018, as well as getting accredited as an international referee through a programme in Manchester. Now, he works as a sports coordinator for the Rumah Cemara NGO, getting more people involved.


This is a simple story of transformation. “[There were] lots of changes after I returned,” he tells me, laughing. “I kept playing football, and I joined the Professional Futsal League, just for one year. After that I went back to college, got a job. I have a girlfriend as well.” In their pride at his accomplishment, his separated parents even came together to welcome him home from the airport.


Players qualify for the Homeless World Cup if they have been homeless at some point in the year preceding the tournament, are in drugs and alcohol rehab, or make their living by selling newspapers on the street. “Homelessness definitions vary from country to country, so we do not have a definition that fits all. We defer to the judgement of our Street Football Partners when selecting their competing teams,” said Mariana Mercado, the Homeless World Cup communications manager.


In Indonesia, the team is selected “by taking a background of people with HIV/AIDS, drug consumers, poor cities, and also seeing the basic technical skills of playing football before they passed the selection following training,” said Indra Simorangkir, who is the Community Service leader for Rumah Cemara. Players who aren’t selected can still play in Rumah Cemara’s local and national tournaments for disadvantaged players, and try out for the international team in the next year. Rumah Cemara also frequently hosts casual games where anyone can play.


After an initial group stage, the tournament splits into a number of tiers, as determined by number of points scored. This tiered system means that each team gets more playing time, and cups are awarded to the winner of each tier. The halves of each game are seven minutes, meaning the games are really fast.

Players are only allowed to play in one tournament “to ensure our event has a positive impact on as many people as possible,” according to Mercado.


In Mexico City in November, the Indonesian team finished at tenth place out of 47 countries, beating Russia for the Carlos Slim Trophy. They also won an award for fair play; after being at the tournament for a number of years, they have a reputation for being the “most fun” team.


While the numbers are important, it’s not the statistics which transform people’s lives. One sweaty evening in Bandung, I watched a game of football. The street soccer stadium was compact: 22 metres by 16 metres according to Homeless World Cup regulations. It was nestled under a motorway flyover in the city of Bandung, about 150 km from Jakarta.


The sun was setting,  the light mellow and elastic. I‘ve never understood football, really; apparently, you’re supposed to kick the ball? After a week with the people from Rumah Cemara, though, I felt compelled to pay attention. I followed the electric lines of the players on the field, admiring how a called command switches and twists into footwork, passes. They spoke in Bahasa, Javanese, occasional English words too Perhaps there is some truth to the maxim that soccer is the universal language, because I didn’t need to understand.


This is the miracle of football: compared to the honks of the streets, the noise of the markets, this place offered peace. There were swift streaks of people on the field, the best players yielding to the weaker ones, giving them the ball. Even I was cajoled to join in. I was reluctant, but I did it anyway.


Another miracle: I did not know how to play football. I did not know the rules, much less their rules. I was given the ball, and I stumbled over it, shot at the goal, missed, again and again. None of this felt like failure; I felt like one of the team.


The team rotated again, and I watched, talking to Jaka’s girlfriend, who came to play too. Some of the players were recently homeless, and their bodies echoed that in hollow edges, but they handled the ball with grace. Some were HIV positive, but I didn’t notice which ones. All players were welcoming.


I didn’t know much about the Homeless World Cup before I went to Indonesia, and I had several criticisms and concerns. Why spend all the money on visas and transportation when only so many people can go to the tournament? Couldn’t that money be used to support more homeless and vulnerable people, most of whom will never see or hear of the tournament?


Though these are valid points, the tournament itself is but the tip of the iceberg, part of an interconnecting global network of local, national, and international football programs. Alongside their partners, The Homeless World Cup organisers claim to reach 100,000 homeless people annually, and that they have created connections with  nearly one million people since the programme began in 2001. 94% of players say that participating in the Homeless World Cup has had a positive impact on their lives; a vast majority say that it has changed their social relations, motivating and helping them to work towards their goals with confidence.


The tournament also provides community. As a conservative, majority-Muslim culture, Indonesia’s national rhetoric is virulently against people who do not fit into imposed societal norms, including homeless people, HIV positive people, and drug users. Rumah Cemara creates an open and accepting space for those who are excluded to find connection with each other through sport. The organisation also offers a boxing programme and an alternative music branch. This organisational culture is so compelling that even those who are not part of these target groups want to join in.


It felt almost jarring to enter Rumah Cemara’s headquarters from the streets, where I received hostile stares for going for a run in loose trousers and a t-shirt. People from all walks sat in the open air, playing music, juggling a soccer ball, or smoking on worn-out couches. It was profoundly chill. Messages of support for LGBT and HIV+ people on the walls emphasised that I  had entered a totally different environment. The culture created by Rumah Cemara, especially around their soccer programme, allows them to reach people who would otherwise never hear about this small organisation, simply because they want to play street soccer with others.


This reach extends internationally. The tournament itself also exposes spectators in the host cities to homeless people from around the world; at Glasgow in 2015, there were 80,000 fans in attendance, and 30 million viewers combined across their Facebook, Youtube, and website. The social value of the Homeless World Cup has been valued at nearly $13 million, more than eight times the cost of hosting the tournament.  


Simorangkir has seen how football—one of the few national interests in Indonesia, which is itself one of the most diverse nations on the planet—can bring people together. “[Football] can reach other people outside the key population of the general public,” he said. The sports programme reaches vulnerable people who are interested in football even if they don’t otherwise know how to change their lives. Still, it is just “one way” to make a change.


In Bandung, the players are going to keep playing soccer. “We’re like a family, because we talk to each other and share with each other,” Jaka tells me, and in that moment I’m part of family too.



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