Homeless World Cup delivers goals, assists and saves

Matt Fairweather leads the Australian team during the opening ceremonies of the Homeless World Cup. (Max Whittaker for The Washington Post)
9 min

SACRAMENTO — Matt Fairweather has struggled with bipolar disorder and mania throughout his life. The past decade, he said, has been particularly challenging. He was smoking 50 cigarettes a day and abusing drugs and alcohol. He was sometimes homeless in Newcastle, Australia, living in hostels or at the Salvation Army. He alternated between going off his medications so he could work 60-hour weeks and then going back on, which left him unable to work and pay his bills.

Fairweather has followed an unlikely path from the mental health unit of a hospital to the field at Sacramento State’s Hornet Stadium, where he carried his country’s flag and led teammates onto the field this past weekend. And it was blazed by soccer. Five years ago, a counselor recommended he try a local street soccer program. Fairweather hadn’t played in 13 years, but he loved the sport and decided to try. His first stint didn’t last, and the pandemic shutdown kept him in the house for more than a year not long after, but following another stay in the hospital, he decided to give the sport another try.

The first week, he just watched. The second week, he played for 20 minutes. Then he progressed to full 75-minute games, which is how he found himself halfway around the world wearing a yellow team jersey and preparing to compete against players from across the globe.

Fairweather, 43, is one of more than 400 participants from 30 countries taking part in an event called the Homeless World Cup, which is being held in-person this week for the first time since 2019 and the United States’ inaugural turn as host country. The goal of the Homeless World Cup, which was founded in 2003, is to use soccer as a vehicle to inspire those experiencing homelessness while also changing perceptions and attitudes toward those populations.

“Through [street soccer], I found someone who gave me a little bit of hope, and it started the ball rolling,” said Fairweather, who is enrolled in a peer counseling education program and volunteers twice a week at a local hospital’s mental health ward, where he encourages patients to pursue some type of physical activity. “Now I’m just running with it.”

Making a change

Mel Young built a network for those experiencing homelessness to sell street papers, and at a 2001 gathering with other social entrepreneurs in Capetown, Young and fellow attendee Harald Schmied brainstormed ideas on how homeless populations could attend events alongside organizational leaders.

Both considered soccer a universal language, and 18 months later, the first Homeless World Cup was held in Graz, Austria.

According to recent data, it is estimated that by 2025, 1.6 billion people — a fifth of the world’s population — will lack access to secure, adequate and affordable housing. Those experiencing homelessness are often ignored, avoided or looked down upon, but at that first Cup, Young saw adults cheering and singing for the participants and young fans asking players for autographs.

After surveying the participants following the event, Young found an overwhelming majority said the experience had changed their lives positively, whether that meant they found jobs, secured housing, applied for educational programs, gotten sober or more.

Several years later, Young founded the Homeless World Cup Foundation, an officially registered charity that wants to use the game “to help and inspire people struggling to make a home for themselves.” Countries can apply for partnership with the Homeless World Cup, which now has more than 70 member countries globally.

This year’s event includes 28 men’s teams and 12 women’s teams. Each team consists of eight players, and games are four-on-four and played in two seven-minute halves, with a one-minute halftime. Organizers say the week-long competition is intended for the homeless or those who have recently experienced homelessness, acknowledging that the terms are defined differently in various countries.

“Being homeless can be incredibly isolating, making people feel removed from society and alone,” said Matthew Williams, head of communications at the Homeless World Cup Foundation. “Joining a soccer team can be a small but hugely significant step in helping an individual to feel part of a community. The athletes that are selected are done so because of the support and stability they currently have via existing Street Soccer programs and the commitment and resilience they have shown in their journey.”

Including the excluded

Lawrence Cann and his brother, Rob, started a street soccer team in Charlotte in 2005 as part of a larger homeless outreach program. In 2009, they founded Street Soccer USA as a nonprofit aimed at building trust through soccer primarily with young adults and adults in need of social services, including those experiencing homelessness.

Since then, Street Soccer USA has expanded to 10 cities, with permanent partners in five more, offering expansive youth and children’s programming as well as social services.

Cann helped bring the event to the United States, putting it together in under six months after the event was dormant for three years because of the pandemic. On the Hornet Stadium field, volunteers constructed three pitches, each 22 meters long by 16 meters wide. Game action was broadcast on the large screen, and a PA announcer detailed matchups and scores. Each team’s national anthem was played (or, in the case of the United States, sung) before each game.

“This is probably the most inclusive sporting event, when it boils down to it,” Cann said. “Because it includes the most excluded people.”

Lisa Wrightsman is the managing director for Street Soccer USA Sacramento, which serves more than 500 children weekly and 50 adults through a variety of engagements, and has coached the U.S. women in eight Homeless World Cups. She has experienced what many of her participants are going through.

Wrightsman played collegiate soccer for Sacramento State, and after graduating in 2005, she played in semipro leagues while working. But addiction to drugs and alcohol, including methamphetamines, led to multiple arrests and periods of homelessness. After she entered a two-year rehabilitation program in 2009, one of her counselors recommended a street soccer program, and after she practiced with the team, she attended her first Homeless World Cup in 2010.

“When I came home, I was different,” Wrightsman said. “It stuck with me. I had never been more affirmed of my path in life. I thought, ‘If I do this, good things will happen.’ And that had not been clear to me in rehab in the beginning.”

In the U.S. women’s opener against Finland, 24-year-old Sienna Jackson scored the first goal. Jackson discovered Street Soccer Sacramento five years ago through encouragement from Wrightsman, whom she met while living in a youth homeless shelter.

Jackson had left the shelter and secured housing and a job when Wrightsman asked her whether she would be interested in being nominated for the Homeless World Cup.

“At first, I hesitated because it’s a lot to tell your story and have to live that over and over,” Jackson said. “But I thought: ‘You know what? There are people who’ve been through worse than me, and they’ve told their stories. And this is a good platform to share that.’

“This is letting people see that homelessness isn’t the peak of a person,” said Jackson, who is enrolled in a dental assistant educational program and works as a pediatric dental assistant. “It’s not just someone addicted to drugs. It’s not just a tent on the side of a street. There’s a lot of sources that lead up to those causes.”

Seeing the world

Some teams prioritize inclusion in deciding rosters. Teams such as Bulgaria chose members from itinerant communities, such as 18-year-old Aloyosha Alyoshev.

Alyoshev, who is in high school and got married in December, lives in one of the poorest communities in Bulgaria; most residents are either unemployed or work in a local factory. He had never left his small town before traveling to obtain his visa for the tournament.

When asked what soccer means to him, Alyoshev grinned at his interpreter and spoke one word. “Everything,” the interpreter said, smiling.

The Cup is held in a new location each year, allowing for international travel for participants, many of whom have never been outside of their home country.

“I always underestimate the value of the travel experience,” Cann said. “It’s amazing. It opens your mind. It’s super powerful — there’s just a broadening.”

Still other countries attended for their love of soccer — and to remind the world that they are here. For the first time in the Cup’s history, Ukraine sent a team of male players. All of the Ukrainian players were serving in the war before they arrived in Sacramento, 38-year-old team member Dima Scherba said through an interpreter. This was his first time visiting the United States.

Before the war, Scherba, who is from Ternobal, Ukraine, worked as a police officer and played in a local amateur soccer league. When he was young, he played soccer in the backyard with his father and dreamed of playing internationally. Now a married father of a 10-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, he said he is finally realizing his dream.

As his team was introduced for its first match, a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag was draped around each player’s shoulders. While they are on the pitch, Scherba said, it takes away some of the stress of what is happening with the war.

“People have been so caring here,” he said, “and everyone is so caring about Ukraine.”

To Peter Fink, one of the coaches on the U.S. men’s team, those interactions are not surprising.

“I’ve always said the soccer ball is the world’s best translator,” Fink said. “You can create a pretty good relationship even if you don’t speak the same language just by playing a game and having fun.”