At home among the team

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 August, 2005, 12:00am

I spent the happiest days of my 42-year life with eight homeless people in Edinburgh last month. As chief coach of the Hong Kong team for the Homeless World Cup, I led these men to win five out of 11 matches, and draw two others. However, in the end, it was not the result that mattered, but the lessons and high spirits we all brought home.

The event was started in 2003 by the International Network of Street Papers. This year, the Society for Community Organisation created the first Hong Kong team to participate in the event, which was won by Italy. We were the only team from Asia out of a total of 27.

This year's world cup was extra special because it was held in Edinburgh soon after the Group of Eight meeting there, following the global call to developed countries to make poverty history.

Our team comprised men from different backgrounds aged between 22 and 44. One is a former professional soccer player who acted as an assistant coach. Another was forced on to the streets after he lost all his money from a gambling addiction. One with emotional problems grew up in an orphanage. Others left home because of family problems. The tournament held a special meaning for them because many had never left the city before, let alone represented their country.

We started the training with about a dozen people and narrowed it down to the final eight. About half had never played before or had only basic skills. At the first training session, I made a real effort to persuade them not to smoke. It was only after repeating this request perhaps 1,000 times that they finally gave up - well, at least on the field.

But it is soccer that worked the magic. As training progressed, feelings of comradeship were formed among these people who used to be lone fighters on the street. The gambling man found it more interesting than poker and became the most vocal player, cheering on his teammates (eventually he lost his voice!) One 1.83-metre-tall player who had a slouch held his head high after returning from the competition.

The tournament gave them the confidence they never had in Hong Kong. While on the field, the crowd cheered them on. They did not treat them as homeless people but simply as soccer players. They were real heroes in Edinburgh. Fans chased after them in the street for autographs. They simply became David Beckham - Hong Kong style.

The language barrier made it a little difficult to communicate with other teams, so we usually just exchanged chants. However, on the field, the communication was more direct. The games were four a side, on a pitch slightly bigger than a tennis court, so it was natural that it got rather physical. But they always hugged afterwards. The atmosphere became one in which there were no boundaries. Everyone enjoyed the beauty of the game, and the beauty of their friendship.

Even as a sporting event, the Homeless World Cup is an entertaining competition. It brings back the lost feelings of soccer. While we only watch soccer from a distance, with its commercial infrastructure, this brings back the essence of the game; a game that is from the people and for the people.

The Big Issue South Africa will host next year's competition in Cape Town and we hope to have another team from Hong Kong competing. We will rely on generous donors to help bring hope for another eight homeless people. Viva el futbol!

Ho Wai-chi is chief coach of the Hong Kong's Homeless World Cup team and chief officer of policy research and advocacy at the Hong Kong Council of Social Service