They may not have homes, but 64 soccer teams playing at the Champs de Mars, near the Eiffel Tower, have the chance to represent the countries from which they hail.
The Homeless World Cup kicked off its ninth annual tournament on Sunday, bringing together people from 48 countries who are homeless and socially marginalized, according to the tournament's website. Participants commit the week to the sport, an exercise organizers believe can inspire players to turn their lives around, while a three-day international conference to brainstorm ways to eliminate homelessness takes place on the sidelines, the Herald Sun reports.
"The Homeless World Cup exists to end homelessness," co-founder Mel Young, a Scottish social entrepreneur, wrote on the event's website. "It has engaged over 100,000 homeless people since it started with participants changing their lives for the better."
Author Dave Bidini told The New York Times that he witnessed firsthand just how profound of an effect the game can have on the players while researching his book "Home and Away." Bidini chronicled the 2008 tournament in Melbourne, Australia, where he met Billy Pagonis, 46, a homeless man who he saw "spiral out of control" when he was addicted to painkillers.
"The game saved him," Bidini told the news outlet. "He was a lonely addict for a time."
Pagonis now coaches Canada's homeless soccer team.
Pagonis' story isn't that unique, according the Homeless World Cup organization. It estimates that 70 percent of participants take steps to improve their lives by reconnecting with family, quitting drugs and moving out of shelters. This was the goal of founders Mel Young and Harald Schmied, who hoped to use soccer to raise awareness of the issue and empower the homeless to take action, according to SFGate.com. With Nike's backing and funding from European soccer's governing body, the tournament has been able to grow from 144 players in 2003 to more than 500 players this year, the Homeless World Cup site reports.
The tournament hosted its first women's division last year in Rio de Janeiro and this year has expanded to include 16 all-female teams, The New York Times reports.
“I’m overjoyed to have played at the Homeless World Cup, meeting people from across the world and playing football," said Gerthrude Saint-Jacques on the tournament's website, about having played for Haiti. "It is more than a dream to represent your country at the Homeless World Cup – it is a miracle.”
It's also an opportunity to give participants a chance to feel proud of where they're from, even if they don't have a home to call their own.
"It's all about winning, a preserve normally associated with the lucky, the rich, and Charlie Sheen. But the joy of jamming an opponent sticks to any soul," Alan Black wrote on SFGate.com. "Attach the label of nationhood, wrapped in flags, the solidarity and competition of the Homeless World Cup is a reminder that goals, for however brief a moment they appear, is a release worth striving for."SLIDESHOW: See more than 500 homeless soccer players hit the field in Paris