Home Game: A Ball Can Change The World

Mel Young and Peter Barr

Luath, £16.99

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Review by Hugh MacDonald

THEY say football has lost its soul. They are lying, at worst. At best, they are seeking enlightenment in the wrong places.

The top level of football has rarely been the sanctuary of all things holy and wholesome. The blubbering about the modern game having lost its way from the good, old days raises hollows laughs from those of us who watched professional football in death-trap stadiums, with toilet facilities that would have shamed the Black Hole of Calcutta, and with catering that would have tested the intestinal fortitude of bubonic rats.

The players were treated with similar contempt. They performed in front of crowds of up to 100,000-plus for wages that gave them a semi-detached in the suburbs, a Ford Grenada and two weeks’ holidays in a high-rise in Magaluf.

There was and is soul in football. But it has nothing to do with hype, TV deals, club megastores or, in the past, boards exploiting the labour of players and the capital of fans.

The sceptic might scorn the premise that something good or edifying resides in a game now drenched in money. But he or she will never have been moved by a moment of transcendent brilliance by a player, by the shared community of the stand in the face of adversity or triumph or by the sheer power of a game that demands so much, so easily from its followers.

This observer has watched football in seven different decades, though the Stirling Albion years alone seem much longer. I have reported on its excesses, its tragedies and its gaudy superficiality. I know the beautiful game has a face, sometimes cunningly hidden, that has all the plooks and blemishes of pubescent youth that has been dooking for chips. I know it is over-promoted, over-hyped and overblown.

I know, too, that it can be life-affirming, life-changing.

This declaration of faith is emboldened by reading Home Game. It is, in essence, an account of the Homeless World Cup, a competition created in 2003 and that has grown in strength and influence ever since. The book is written by Mel Young, a co-founder of the competition, and Peter Barr, a journalist who is also a trustee of the Homeless World Cup Foundation.

Its structure is simple. The authors set the story in the tournament in Mexico City 2012 and use the engaging formula of answering a basic question posed at the start of each chapter. It is wonderfully rambling at times, like a dribbling, maverick winger of old. It can also be brutally direct in the manner of a Junior centre-half. Either way, it makes for compelling reading.

The stories of the participants are deeply troubling, extraordinarily moving and intensely inspiring. Young meets the drug gang lords, the drug victims, the alcohol abusers who have struggled to play in a world cup and then returned to coach teams or who went on to simply live a life of something akin to normality. This book does not shy away from statistics but is at its best when dealing with the personalities, whether they be those on the frozen fringes of society or those who seek to change policy at the highest of levels.

There is, too, a sense of aching immediacy in some of the encounters, not least because a player can only appear at one world cup. But many have seized the chance that football has given them in terms of fitness, detachment from damaging substances and an increased sense of self-esteem.

These players not only represent their countries but the almost countless millions of excluded people in the world. Statistics suggest there are 100 million homeless on this planet, a figure that is as round as it is obscene.

So how can an annual tournament staged in city centre squares with teams of eight players impact on such a problem? The authors give forthright answers. Basically, the tournament has three areas of influence. First, it can help the homeless one person at a time. Independent research has shown that 80 per cent of players “significantly change their lives – kicking drug or alcohol problems, finding employment or somewhere to live’’.

Second, the tournament places the homeless in an unaccustomed position. People who walk past the homeless person on the street can sit in stands and cheer the effort, ability and talent of those they once ignored or even scorned.

Third, the publicity gained by the tournament can and does lead to initiatives aimed at tackling a problem that is universal and often placed low on the priority lists of governments. The homeless are portrayed as feckless, criminal or addicted. Some are all three. But the Homeless World Cup has attracted enormous media interest over the years and these self-confessed addicts and/or criminals are shown to be people who can reform, regroup and lead lives of fulfilment, often helping those who share the suffering they once endured.

That plight is graphically illustrated in Home Game. Young is frank in recalling his harrowing experiences in the townships of South Africa where one word can enforce a speedy, fearful evacuation or the sewers of St Petersburg where homeless children embrace hot water pipes to defy hypothermia. He knows a football tournament cannot hope to defeat this pernicious evil. But it can have an influence.

This involves tough choices. The purity of the Homeless World Cup has been questioned by those who have been concerned by its inter-action with UEFA, the European football body that has been tainted by corruption scandals, and Nike, the sportswear company that would seem to represent the sort of globalisation that many campaigners blame for social problems, including homelessness.

Young, with an unrelenting radicalism, sees big business as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. This has led him into fiery debate with other campaigners but his reasoning is that a global problem requires to be met by global resources. Thus he accepted UEFA’s help as it unlocks doors, and embraces the expertise offered by such a major company as Nike.

An end to homelessness requires a revolution greater than that performed by a plastic-coated ball. Young, in the book’s title and in his prose, asserts a ball can change the world. But how much? And for how long? Is its impact only producing a dent on a resilient problem? Is the soul of football no match for the sins of Mammon?

There is a moment of personal revelation. While glorying in parochialism, I bumped into something more universal.

Scotland’s record in the Homeless World Cup is glorious. As a nation we have staged it twice, once in Edinburgh and once in Glasgow. Our capital rescued the tournament in 2005 when New York pulled out as hosts, leaving the competition dangerously close to cancellation. Scotland has also won the tournament. One of its creators is a Scot. And the only Scot ever to have scored a hat trick against Brazil is a member of a homeless national side. (Mark Elliott, since you ask.)

These warming facts accompanied me as I placed Home Game in my bag, exited a comfortable café and turned on to Argyle Street on a particularly awful Glasgow day. There, in doorways or in the streets, sat the dispossessed, huddled under blankets or sleeping with a proferred polystyrene cup their only receptacle of hope.

The impact of homelessness is inarguable, blatantly visible. There will be those who put down Home Game and scoff at what they perceive as Young’s naivety. There will, of course, be those who will never pick it up or even choose to look away.

But it is the most important, provocative book I have read this year. There has to be a roar of acclaim for the Homeless World Cup and the hope, help and encouragement it offers. There has also to be a recognition that this is not a problem football can answer, however big its heart or deep its soul.

It is not football’s job to solve homelessness. But perhaps it is mine. Maybe ours?