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Homeless swap streets for World Cup stage

The Swiss line-up for the Homeless World Cup (strassenmagazin.ch)

It’s a world away from the glamour, glitz and mega-buck salaries of the Manchester Uniteds and Real Madrids.

On Sunday a football team from Switzerland temporarily left a life on the streets behind them to take part in the Homeless World Cup in Sweden.

The eight-strong squad, made up of vendors from Switzerland’s “Surprise” street magazine for the homeless, are putting their skills to the test against teams from around the world.

And they are hoping to make a better impression than they did at last year’s inaugural tournament in Graz, Austria.

The team won the Fair Play trophy and many hearts, but that was about all.

In seven matches, the Swiss leaked 77 goals and only managed to find the back of the net on 11 occasions. They finished 18th and last in the overall standings.

But according to team coordinator Simone Burgherr, they are unlikely to be a soft touch second time around.

“It’s fair to say that last year we didn’t train very well and we didn’t really know the rules of Street Soccer,” she told swissinfo. “This year we have a better team and a strong team spirit.”

Honing skills

The team have been training twice a week since April, honing their skills on playing fields in Basel on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons.

Coach René Fiechter says he has seen a big improvement, and he describes the atmosphere among the players as "excellent".

"I’m as excited as a little kid," said 24-year-old defender Rico Brunschwiler.

The competition, which is organised by the International Network of Street Papers, this year groups together teams from 29 countries including Brazil, Japan, Cameroon and Russia.

It is not just a question of sport: a social forum running parallel to the tournament will look at many of the issues facing the homeless.

Social issues

To be selected, players must meet one of two criteria: they must either be homeless or earn most of their income from selling street papers.

Two members of the Swiss squad not only play their football on the streets, they also live there.

But even those who now have a roof over their heads are still struggling to get to grips with their lives.

“The team really is a mix. We have people who are trying to come off drugs, and those who have been hit by family problems, depression or debt,” said Burgherr.

The SFr20,000 ($16,000) cost of the eight-day trip to Gothenburg has been met by private donations. For many of the squad, it is their first journey overseas.

New direction

Burgherr says she hopes some of them will use the tournament as an opportunity to give their lives new direction.

“These are people who are always seen as losers, and this tournament gives them the chance to present themselves in a different light – as individuals who have something to offer the world,” she said.

Out of last year’s wooden spoon-winning team one has gone back to working full-time as a roofer, and two others have been taken on as employees at Surprise.

Three players from last year’s world cup winners Austria even went on to sign contracts for minor league clubs.

As the organisers of the competition say: “The best success of the Homeless World Cup is to play in it only once.”

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont

Key facts

29 teams are taking part in the second Homeless World Cup.
Newcomers include Argentina, Cameroon, Namibia, Portugal, Ukraine, Japan and France.
Matches take place in Gothenburg, Sweden.

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