THE BLOG
09/16/2015 05:23 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2016

The Beautiful Game and the Goal of Belonging

Bryan Weinstein

This past Saturday, in the middle of Amsterdam's iconic Museum Square, Team Brazil and Team Argentina squared off in one of the first games of the 2015 World Cup.

But Brazil wasn't captained by Neymar, nor Argentina by Messi. In fact, none of the nations' stars were on the pitch--because the teams were playing for the 13th Homeless World Cup.

This unique event is the brainchild of Mel Young, whom I most recently saw at the 2015 Doha GOALS Forum, which I wrote about in my last column. Mel has devoted himself to combating homelessness in his native Scotland and around the world. As he describes it, soccer--known to most of the world as "football"--can be a means to equip and empower homeless people to change their lives, by restoring their confidence and self-esteem and replacing isolation with belonging.

Over eight days, men and women from around the world, men and women without homes, get the opportunity to don their nation's colors and compete in the international soccer tournament, which features a combined 65 men's and women's teams. For many of the players, this marks their first time in a foreign country--not to mention playing on an international stage, surrounded by cheering fans.

How many of us have walked by a homeless person, and out of shame or fear or helplessness or hopelessness, failed to meet their gaze? How many of us have pretended not to hear a request for spare change, or acted as though we couldn't even see the outstretched hand?

Now think of it from the perspective of those individuals reaching out. Imagine what it is like to feel unseen. This is social isolation, and it's often both a cause and an effect of homelessness and poverty. As Detroit journalist Michael Jackman recently wrote in the Detroit Metro Times, "When we walk along and ignore somebody who's asking a question, it means we're denying them their humanity." Too often, we let our own discomfort prevent any possibility of connection.

As a result, the estimated 100 million men and women living on the streets worldwide are practically an invisible class. They see the world alive all around them, but too often the world chooses not to see them.

Whether they are victims of civil strife, natural disasters, economic hardship, domestic violence, or substance abuse, all of the players participating in the Homeless World Cup have struggled with exclusion, with isolation, and with invisibility. The Cup turns this on its head and makes them the stars of the show.

While the World Cup is the highest-profile event of its kind, it's part of a much broader network of 74 partner organizations all over the world deploying the power of teamwork to overcome isolation and help these athletes get their lives back on track. For the men and women involved, playing "the beautiful game" is more than just headers and heroics. It's a chance to escape from the harsh realities of life on the street, and an opportunity to embrace the inclusion and pride that come from being part of a team.

If you want more of a sense of just how powerful the Homeless World Cup is, take a look at the documentary Kicking It. In fact, after producing the documentary, entrepreneur and philanthropist Sheila Johnson founded a branch of Street Soccer USA, called the Lady Salamanders, which has sent players to represent Team USA in every Homeless World Cup since 2011. (In my home country of Canada, this work is done through an organization called Street Soccer Canada.)

When these homeless players are acknowledged as important, capable members of a team, the impact is enormous. Street Soccer USA reports that of the 3,000 players who have participated in their programs since the organization's founding, over 75 percent have since gone back to school, found housing, landed jobs, or completed rehabilitation programs.

The programs use soccer as a vehicle for human connection, building the bonds of belonging, and granting the players access to what I see as the three elements crucial to overcoming social isolation: respect, recognition, and reciprocity. In the words of celebrated striker Jason Roberts, an ambassador for the Homeless World Cup, "Football can speak to people, bridging barriers such as language, race, and religion. The unscripted drama and stories have the ability to unify people around the common love for the world's greatest sport."

We have a long way to go to conquer homelessness and the isolation that so often accompanies it. But every goal at the Homeless World Cup brings us a little closer to achieving that larger goal of ending homelessness and fostering inclusion.