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Ten homeless New Yorkers went to Charlotte, N.C. this month to compete for a chance to play soccer in an unusual tournament, the Homeless World Cup – and nine returned home last week as designated members of the national team. Those who get passports in time will join players from elsewhere in the U.S. and fly to Cape Town, South Africa for the Cup’s beginning Sept. 23.

Now in its fourth year, the Homeless World Cup was conceived in 2001 at an international conference of “street papers” written and sold by homeless people. The first Homeless World Cup was held in Austria in 2003, followed by Sweden in 2004 and Scotland in 2005.

Teams from New York, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta and Austin met for the playoffs Aug. 19 and 20, playing “street soccer” — four-person teams playing two 14-minute halves on a tennis court-sized hard surface with walls — before spectators in downtown Charlotte.

According to Jeff Grunberg, publisher of New York’s BIGNews street newspaper and organizer of its homeless soccer team, the soccer program is intended as a kind of outreach. Often, he said, homeless people have difficulty forming stable relationships with others, making it difficult for them to hold jobs.

But in the context of team sports, “These disparate, detached individuals … were exchanging cell phones, e-mails, gladhanding each other,” Grunberg said.

“It empowers homeless folks and builds their self-esteem,” said Michael Stoops, acting Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, who also works with the program.

Lawrence Cann, the host and organizer in Charlotte, says the program has produced positive results. He described the soccer as a kind of anger management, often helpful to the players, but also stressed that the program “focuses on people’s talents rather than their problems.” He said that he has seen his players develop better long-term planning abilities and interpersonal skills. But given the small number of people involved, he said, “It’s hard for me to claim soccer did it.”

The players themselves seem to think playing soccer helps. “I feel good to play soccer with these people,” said Daniel Martinez, 22, a Honduras native who has played on the New York team for the past two years and was named tournament MVP. “They’re wonderful.” Martinez said that the chance to meet homeless people with all sorts of life stories, sharing in the common activity of soccer, is “pretty cool.”

Victor Urgiles, who was born in Equador and moved to New York seven years ago, has only played soccer with the program for two months, but has already come to like it. He describes the people he plays with as his friends and says that his experience has been positive.

If last year’s American Homeless World Cup team is any indication, the positive effect of the program lasts beyond just soccer. All nine players on that team, which traveled to Scotland, first joined the program homeless and now have jobs and homes. Stephanie Johnson, a member of the team who lives in Charlotte, attributes their success directly to the program. Like Martinez and Urgiles, she stressed the importance of the relationships built while playing soccer: “I became a little bit more tolerant of different people,” she said.

– Brendan Pierson

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