Homeless World Cup 2015

Note to Sepp Blatter – this is how to organise a World Cup

Trying to establish a player's name: just ONE of the things Zakia Moulaoui has to sort out at the Homeless World Cup. This is a holiday camp in Holland like no other.

Instead of the usual troops of happy families parading Marinapark’s boulevards, swimming in its pool or building sandcastles on its beach, this month will see it become home to asylum seekers, refugees, people who have been forced to leave their homes by natural disasters and many others from around the world who have found themselves homeless.

The circumstances the men and women come from are wide-ranging but there is one thing they all have in common – they are part of their national football team. From next week, 64 teams from all corners of the planet will gather for the 13th Homeless World Cup, in Amsterdam. With a total of 640 players plus an additional couple of hundred support staff, it is a mighty feat of co-ordination not only to plan the tournament but organise food, accommod-ation, and some more interesting and unexpected challenges.

Behind the scenes, much of the planning falls to French-born Zakia Moulaoui, Director of International Partner Development. When The Big Issue catches up with her in the Homeless World Cup's office in a New Town tenement in Edinburgh, she is busy putting together guidebooks for team arrivals.

"The more information you give to people, the better, so that there’s no surprises," she says.

But just getting to Schiphol airport is a massive achievement in itself for many players, most of whom have never left their home country before and have certainly never applied for passports.

Last year team Austria all had the same birthday,” Moulaoui recalls. “A lot of their players were refugees from Afghanistan who fled when they were very young. All their passports said '1/1’ or ‘31/12’ because they don’t know when their real birthday is. This year I also had one player from India without a name.

"Players between 16 and 18 need authorisation from their parents to travel and some countries ask for both parents' signatures, if they are still alive. We had a player from the Philippines who had to have papers signed by both parents but he had never met his dad before, so they had to travel to the fishing village where they thought they might find him."

Does the story have a happy ending? “I thought it would! But the player didn’t want to meet him, so they sent a staff member to get him to sign the papers. Which is fair enough. In a lot of western countries players can often be estranged from their parents but in a lot of Asian countries it is whole families who are homeless.”

The diverse situations the players come from demonstrate how complex an issue homelessness is. "We try to have it as unified as possible, everyone wearing football kits, staying together, eating together," says Moulaoui (pictured below, left). “It sounds silly but the fact players know that the referees are eating the same food is important to them because they feel like they are part of something where their own living situation doesn't matter at all.

"This year we are taking over a holiday park a bit like Center Parcs, with little bungalows and a swimming pool in the middle. It is in a village about 40 minutes from the city centre called Volendam, which is a traditional village, people still wear traditional costumes and tourists go there to see the 'real' Netherlands."

During the tournament, Moulaoui is on call 24 hours a day because she never knows what issues may arise. “The first couple of days are really hard because people are nervous about travelling. Some players may have addiction problems, mental health issues, difficult backgrounds… The American coach messaged and said, ‘I have a transgender player, which team should she play in?’ In Paris we had to organise a crèche because the whole of the Canadian women’s team showed up with really young children. We also had a runaway that year. Somebody called one night and said, ‘We’ve lost one of our players’. The team and I went around all the iconic sites because where else in Paris can you hope to find one guy? We went around and around for a few hours then went back to the hotel and he was there. That is the happy ending you want.

Although all the players are dealing with poverty in their own countries, some can be greatly moved by meeting others who are even worse off. For example, team Ireland tends to donate their boots, kit and other equipment to another team who they feel needs it most. Last year they chose team Ghana and in the past they have helped fundraise to help a Kenyan team to attend.

This year’s competition in Amsterdam will be staged on three pitches built in the city centre between the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. Did the city follow the seemingly standard football bidding process of offering the organising committee bribes?

"I wish!" Moulaoui laughs. “The bidding process is exactly like the Olympics. We have a scoring system of different elements you look for. An iconic venue would be one, facilities that can be offered to the players would be another. The setup in Amsterdam is really good and the authorities have been really helpful.

In fact it has a royal seal of approval. The tournament will be opened by Dutch King Willem-Alexander. “We had the draw a couple of weeks ago and the first game is Holland versus Argentina,” Moulaoui says. “It is really good because the Dutch king will be there and his wife Máxima is from Argentina so they can fight against each other!

The Homeless World Cup runs September 12-19.

The above article by Steven Mackenzie first published on bigissue.com in Sep, 2015.