By Doug Gray, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – Now that all the pomp and ceremony of FIFA’s latest World Cup has died down and the multi-millionaires are back playing at their clubs once more, Rio gets the chance to welcome an international football tournament helping to make the world a better place.
The Rio 2010 Homeless World Cup kicks off on Copacabana Beach on September 19th for one week, pitting 64 teams against each other in a quest not just for glory on the pitch, but for hope off it.
According to the organizers, the competition’s growth now means that 73 percent of players actually change their life for the better as a result of it, whether by coming off drink or drugs or even training to become coaches or professional players.
One such success story is in fact a Brazilian. Michelle da Silva, a young woman from the Cidade de Deus favela in the west of Rio was selected to play in the 2007 cup in Copenhagen. This year, having been spotted by none other than competition ambassador and former World Cup winner Eric Cantona, she was selected to partake in the Brazilian women’s Under 20’s national team.
Starting in 2003, the event was organized with the participation of eighteen national teams in Graz, Austria. Since those beginnings the competition has developed into an opportunity for homeless people all over the world to participate and in some cases propel themselves into the world of professional sport.
The streets of Rio have long been home to young children and the elderly alike, but homelessness remains an issue in Brazil that is rarely tackled effectively or positively. The city’s love for football makes it the perfect venue for the issue to again come to the fore and hopefully with positive results.
“The Homeless World cup is an opportunity for homeless people to move from the invisible margins to the center of Rio, stand proud on a global stage, true ambassadors for their country, and change their lives” says Mel Young, President of Homeless World Cup.
The iconic Copacabana Beach will be the venue, and a 5,000-seat stadium is to be erected holding three pitches to host the matches. It is estimated that over 30,000 people will have tried out for their respective teams, each with the dream of making the selection. As well as the likes of England footballer Rio Ferdinand, Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba and French legend Eric Cantona, the competition also has ambassadors from the streets who managed to change their lives as a result of it.
Scotsman David Duke played at the 2004 event as a young homeless man battling alcoholism and coping with the death of his father. He went on to complete his training qualifications as a coach, and in 2007 became manager of the team he once played in, leading them to victory with a 9-3 win in the final.
“The Homeless World Cup was the rope that allowed me to pull myself out of a very dark hole” says the man now responsible for providing weekly coaching sessions to over 500 homeless people in his home country.
The tournament’s legacy is of course the priority for those wanting to foster real change, and the sheer numbers of those now participating show its positive effects. In Melbourne in 2008 the fist women’s tournament was unveiled, and thirty street soccer programs developed across the country with USD$3milliojn of funding behind them.
For similar benefits to hit the city of Rio, and Brazil as a whole, would take little more, but it remains to be seen whether the government is ready to apply positive methods to this devastating perennial problem.