Street Soccer helping homeless Scots set goals for a better life
On a cold, grey October morning, the Scotland squad is determinedly completing passing and shooting drills on a small five-a-side pitch in Glasgow.
They play as a team with intense concentration, skill and passion; as if their lives might somehow depend on getting that ball in the back of the net.
In some ways, it does.
Scotland is heading to the World Cup later this month but while national manager Gordon Strachan may have lent them his support and advice, this squad has never set foot on Hampden Park soil. They have, however, spent time on the streets and in hostels.
Eight players from Street Soccer Scotland are preparing to fly over 7000 miles to represent their country at the 2014 Homeless World Cup in Chile this weekend.
Last Thursday, the team held their final training session before taking part in the 12th annual event, held in Santiago from October 19 to 26. Speaking with the players helped by Street Soccer Scotland, it's clear that this is a social enterprise that saves and changes lives through sport.
"If it wasn't for Street Soccer, I'd be dead," coach Robert Hare admits with brutal honesty.
Still panting after an intensive training session, the 44-year-old sits on the stone steps outside the practice pitch Street Soccer Scotland rents several times a week in the Townhead area of Glasgow.
Robert attended Street Soccer’s weekly drop-in training sessions for four years and is now employed full time by the organisation.
Thanks to Street Soccer, he’s now in a good place, but it wasn’t always that way. Five years ago, Robert, who once played for Dundee United and East Stirling, became severely depressed after he was made redundant and lost several close friends to suicide.
“I’d been to prison, I lost my wife, my job, everything,” explains the father of two.
“I completely lost contact with my family so I had nowhere to go. I ended up sleeping rough on the streets of Glasgow for about a week before I went to a hostel.
“I was depressed and on the brink of suicide. Then I started going to the Street Soccer Scotland sessions. You’re made to feel so welcome and realise you’re not the only one out there alone and with problems.”
Like the majority of Street Soccer Scotland's staff, Robert's past experience of being homeless means he can relate to what the players he coaches have been through.
It turns out he's a bit of an inspiration too.
In 2011, Robert captained the Street Soccer Scotland team to victory at the 2011 Homeless World Cup in Paris - the second time Scotland had been victorious at the tournament after their first win back in 2007.
“Apart from my children it was probably the most ecstatic feeling I ever had considering where I’d came from at that point,” Robert recalls.
“When I came back I decided that I had to give something back to Street Soccer because it really did save my life. The understanding and support you receive is unbelievable – it really pulls you out of a dark place."
Ryan Murray, one of the players Robert has been coaching for the Homeless World Cup, agrees.
“Your mentality changes because you see people in the same situation that you’ve been in, and how well they’re doing now,” says the 23-year-old from Paisley (pictured below with Gordon Strachan).
“You learn to develop as a person, which Street Soccer has helped me do," he continues. "Sometimes I can be a wee bit erratic but football keeps me calm.”
With a history of criminal behaviour, jail terms and periods of homelessness firmly behind him, Ryan is sticking to the straight and narrow thanks to the focus he pours into Street Soccer.
“You meet new people. It keeps you off the streets as well as getting your fitness up. That helps your mental abilities too - it helps keep you sane," adds Ryan.
“A lot of people have alcohol or drug abuse issues, anger issues or other mental health issues but it’s not about tarring them with that brush. It’s helping them express themselves through football.”
Street Soccer Scotland was founded in Glasgow in 2009 by David Duke, who is also formerly homeless. It now runs weekly drop-in sessions for men and women in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee and Inverness, as well as youth programmes and Scottish tournaments.
But it’s not just about sport.
The charity’s latest programme Football Works, which was developed with the help of funding from the STV Appeal, aims to help coach players back into education and work.
Ryan’s team mate James McCallum has been through the eight-week programme and hopes his involvement with Street Soccer will help him secure a college course to get his life back on track.
“Between 17 and 20 I had a lot of problems and was in and out of prison," says the 24-year-old from Edinburgh during the team's quick break during practice.
“I've not been in trouble for two years now; it’s a totally clean slate for me," James adds.
"Once they sign up [to Street Soccer] a lot of the guys don’t look back, they don’t want to relapse. I'm just trying to get on with things now, get myself in college.”
Before that, they have a small matter of a World Cup trophy to compete for.
While there's still several days to go before they jet off to Santiago, the Street Soccer Scotland team is already on a high. Just this morning the players got to try on their brand new, dark blue Team Scotland kit and even received a pre-tournament pep talk from Gordon Strachan and Scotland legend Steven Naismith.
This weekend in South America, they join over 500 players in 63 teams from 49 countries to compete in the Homeless World Cup and show the world how football has helped change their lives.
The eight-day tournament will be held in specially constructed stadiums and pitches in the Plaza de Armas in central Santiago, where over 100,000 spectators are expected to watch the action unfold.
“Everybody cannae wait, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity," says Ryan. "We’re never gonna get this experience again so we need to grab it with both hands.”
Whatever the outcome, after Chile, Ryan also hopes to follow in his coach’s footsteps and start volunteering with Street Soccer to help get its Paisley project up-and-running.
Robert nods towards the pitch, where the team of men - who were all once isolated, angry and broken in their own way - now banter and laugh together as they warm up for another practice match.
“Everybody’s welcome here, everybody gets treated the same away and shown the same respect," he says.
“On the posters it says it’s a 'positive change through football', and that’s exactly what you get.”
This article was originally published on STV News 11 August 2014.