THE BLOG

Can Football Save Lives?

10/22/2012 08:05 pm 20:05:21 | Updated Dec 22, 2012

On my very first day at the Homeless World Cup Zocalo headquarters, I was greeted by Founder Mel Young who escorted me to the players lounge to meet with Team Haiti. Mel knew Team Haiti held a special place in my heart. Before this day, I didn't know their names or faces, but I knew their struggle well and I put up a fight to make sure they would be on a plane to Mexico City.

A few weeks prior, Mel had called to let me know their sponsor had pulled out. The young Haitian men were devastated. They trained for a year. Homeless World Cup was their dream and the possibility of not having a place on the field in Mexico City broke our hearts.

I remember a day Mel and I were on Skype, his voice fraught with desperation, he told me when he got off the phone with Team Haiti that day, the young men had been crying for fear their chance at the Homeless World Cup Finals would not become a reality. Mel and I worked together to raise funds for Team Haiti during the final weeks -- and fortunately for all of us, an angel came through and covered their expenses.

When I met the young men from the tiny island nation, they hugged me. They were smiling. They were full of joy and pride. They were helping me with my French language skills after having been out of practice. You would have never guessed in a million years they had been homeless. Homeless World Cup programs build confidence, breed hope, and instill values that statistically stay with many of the players long after their personal triumph on the field.

At the end of last week, the Rock Art Love Foundation descended into Mexico City for a long weekend to experience our very first Homeless World Cup during the final days of competition.

Rock Art Love Foundation partnered to support the Homeless World Cup in late 2011. On November 27, 2012, the first annual Rock Art Love Ball and official New York City launch event of Giving Tuesday will honor Carlos Slim -- host of this year's event in Mexico City -- for his commitment to global giving and the Homeless World Cup.

730 homeless men and women hailing from 55 countries around the globe earned a passage to Mexico City, propositioned by a challenge and opportunity to turn their plight into a rallying cry for the rights of the homeless. A nine-day competition on a field constructed in what is known as Zocalo, the second largest public square in the world founded by the Aztecs almost one thousand years ago, would offer 730 souls the chance to experience glory on a world stage that would change their lives forever.

The Homeless World Cup was founded in 2001 by Mel Young and Harold Schmeid of Edinburgh, Scotland. The global organization serving the homeless in countries ranging from Namibia to Mexico to the USA empower the homeless through sport to inspire and transform lives.

Arturo Elias Ayub, President of Telmex Foundation, had a dream he shared with Founder Mel Young. Arturo told Mel he wanted to host the 2012 tournament in Mexico City. His passion for Homeless World Cup grew when he witnessed first-hand the success and long-term positive outcomes the organization offered Mexico's homeless and those living in communities where drug violence is part of the everyday culture. In the past few years, Mexico's local membership programs increased from a few hundred to over 20,000 participants. Arturo told me street soccer is not only an escape and focus, but also a source of hope and inspiration for players both young and old.

Almost 200,000 fans graced the expertly crafted stands in Mexico City's Zocalo cheering on homeless players from around the world. After Mexico's Men's team won the semi-finals, the world's wealthiest man and host of the games, Carlos Slim and Arturo Elias Ayub, came down from the stands to congratulate their country's team. The high fives, hugs, and respect from two of Mexico's elite made it seem as if just for a moment these players were wearing jerseys from Manchester United.

What is the irony in a name like the Homeless World Cup? Fans and players alike, for nine days of their lives, forgot anyone here was ever homeless.

And what happened to the 10 young men hailing from Haiti? When they returned to Port-au-Prince this week they were all given jobs. And what did they share with me in the players lounge just a few days before? They will continue to serve as mentors to the up and coming street soccer stars in Port-au-Prince who dream of one day competing in the Homeless World Cup.