The other night, Jon and I Netflixed a really great documentary called “Kicking It,” which is about the Homeless World Cup. It was a great film, focused on six individual players from different countries as they make their way onto teams and to South Africa to play soccer.
At first, it may seem like a strange form of outreach, forming soccer teams of homeless people. I mean, aren’t there other, more concrete things they need beyond a recreational activity? But soccer is more powerful than it may seem. Just being on a team, having goals, getting to celebrate small successes is a new experience for many of the players, who are often lonely outcasts, estranged from family, battling addictions. One player from Ireland was attempting to end a heroin addiction, and being on the soccer team in essence gave him a reason to keep living, a reason for his mother to finally be proud of him, a reason to get clean. Another player from America had been abused and rejected by his family, and was dealing with lots of anger and abandonment issues, but being on a team was sort of his first experience in a functioning “family,” one that expected him to deal with his anger in more appropriate ways.
But the players who stuck with me were the ones from Kenya, and Afghanistan. The player from Kenya (I wish I could remember their names) lived in a slum and cleaned toilets for a living. He and his fellow players had to build their own soccer pitch in a rocky, dirt-filled lot, as there was no where else for them to play. Although he was 30 years old, he dreamed that maybe someone would see him playing in the Homeless world Cup, and would scout him for a professional team. While in South Africa, his team stayed in what appeared to be a children’s school, sleeping on mattresses on the floor. Some kind soul had to bring the team “necessities” like toothpaste and soap, because they didn’t have them. And yet, the Kenyan player kept talking about how nice the accommodations were, how he felt he was being treated just like a real professional soccer player. It about broke my heart! And despite his own poverty, he volunteered coaching little Kenyan children in soccer, dreaming that perhaps they could use it as a ticket out of the slums.
The Afghan team was particularly interesting to me because, though my country has long been involved in a war there, I don’t know very much about the country or its people. The player highlighted from Afghanistan was a young, seemingly teenage boy with beautiful golden eyes and a wide smile. He and his fellow players were concerned about how the other teams would perceive them, and feared they’d be seen as warlike. They scraped together money to buy suits and ties to wear in the opening ceremony, and made a banner to carry which said (I’m paraphrasing because I don’t exactly remember) “The Afghanistan team is for peace, football, and an end to poverty.” While in South Africa, the teen seemed to marvel at the freedoms he had available, contrasting them to what his life had been like under the Taliban, which had beaten him for playing soccer. He couldn’t believe that in South Africa, he could take pictures with girls and put his arms around him. When one kissed him on the cheek, he said it was his first kiss. He said that he would rather kill himself than see the Taliban return to Afghanistan.
One thing that really contrasted the American team with the other teams was attitude. The American team just seemed angry, was confrontational with other players, with their coach, with the refs. They seemed to trash talk their own country and the way they felt it treated them, whereas the other teams seemed exceedingly proud to be representing their nations. At first this seemed strange, and I thought them ungrateful, but then something occurred to me: when you are homeless in Kenya, you are still fairly “normal” as a Kenyan. Most other Kenyans are also very poor, and you have that in common. In America, if you are poor or homeless, you are NOT “normal.” You are marginalized and seen as a failure at the American dream. Our culture has become so synonymous with consumerism and consumption that to be unable to participate in that system is to be practically not an American. In that context, it made a lot more sense to me that they would be angry and less-than-patriotic about a nation they felt had left them behind and marginalized them.
As you can see, it was a great film, moving and emotional as any classic sports flick, but also thought provoking about the way we treat the homeless in our own nation, and the plight of the poor worldwide. You can stream “Kicking It” via Netflix, or probably rent it at your local video place. You should also check out their website, where I found the following information about the Homeless World Cup players:
One year later…
92% players have a new motivation for life
73% have changed their lives for the better by coming off drugs and alcohol, moving into jobs, education, homes, training, reuniting with families and even going on to become players and coaches for pro or semi-pro football teams.
93 players successfully addressed a drug or alcohol dependency
35% have secured regular employment
44% have improved their housing situation
39% chose to pursue education
72% continue to play football
What they say is true: a ball CAN change your life. For further reading on homeless soccer players here in the US, check out this recent piece from the New York Times.