In just over a week, Canada will find itself participating in an annual soccer tournament unlike any other in the world.
The Homeless World Cup will kick off on Oct. 6 and Canada will be sending both a men’s and women’s team to Mexico City where it will take place. It’s the 10th edition of the tournament and over 62 teams will be competing.
Street Soccer Canada, a program aimed at using sport as social inclusion, is responsible for putting together a squad, and its founder, Paul Gregory, is looking forward to Canada’s ninth consecutive participation.
Gregory first heard about the competition from a friend and worked towards sending a team to the 2004 Homeless World Cup in Gothenburg, Sweden.
“A friend emailed me an article from either the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times talking about the Homeless World Cup,” said Gregory. “The first one that they had was in Graz, Austria in 2003 and I thought it was a cool thing.”
As a community support worker, the program was in good hands as Gregory was already working with homeless people.
“I had been working in the homelessness field for about 16 years and thought it was a cool idea to try and engage people who are pretty marginalized, especially from a recreation perspective.”
Sending a team to Sweden was no easy task given the financial obstacles, but Gregory worked hard to make his dream a reality.
“The first year was really about going to the Homeless World Cup. So we got a shoestring budget, players from all over Peel which is Brampton and Mississauga, and we went.
“I like to say that Mastercard funded us — my Mastercard. But we got donations from a couple of non-profit foundations like St. Leonard’s Place Peel. It cost about $12,000 to go and the event itself was life-changing. We went to Gothenburg, Sweden.”
With Street Soccer Canada currently operating in 12 different cities, putting together a squad to compete at the Homeless World Cup involves interaction between the different factions.
But as Gregory puts it, the focus is on helping out those who are facing social challenges and not about assembling a championship team.
“We are concentrated in Ontario and then we have groups that work under our umbrella. They do their own thing which I think is fantastic.
“A lot of great people are doing a lot of really cool stuff. So we bring the organization together around tournaments or the Homeless World Cup.
“It’s about the player. Getting something out of the Homeless World Cup is the main thing. It’s not really about talent or skill. It’s about participation. It’s about participation and if somebody’s been coming out for a long time, is there something they can get from it?”
In 2011, Canada’s men’s team finished 46 of 48 teams at the tournament while the women’s team finished 14th of 16 teams.
And while social inclusion takes priority over results on the pitch, Gregory believes that Canada do have good enough players to compete with the competition’s strongest teams.
“We have some very, very talented ball players but we don’t bring the most talented ones necessarily. If we rounded up our best players, I think we could finish in the top ten.”
However, continuing to participate in the Homeless World Cup may prove to be a challenge for Canada in the future.
A grant from Healthy Communities is set to expire in 2013 and Street Soccer Canada will need replacement funding. And Gregory acknowledges that this presents a large obstacle.
“It’s always a challenge. It’s not necessarily a recognition that recreation is a big part of somebody’s life. So the challenge that we want to raise is that people think it’s important to help us do what we do.”
But when Canada travel to Mexico next week, the focus will be solely on making the most of what is sure to be another memorable Homeless World Cup from Street Soccer Canada.