All Set for Rio
Ireland may not have a team in the World Cup in South Africa, but this does not mean that our country will not be represented on the World football stage in 2010, Jennifer May reports.
With the final team now selected and in training for the 7th Homeless World Cup to be held in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil in September, there is once again a chance for an Irish team to bring home the trophy, and make their mark in what is now considered the foremost street soccer tournament in the world.
This year, as the Big Issues Street Soccer League has spread throughout Ireland, with teams competing from as far away as Belfast, Limerick and Portlaoise, it was no easy task for organizers to pick the final eight to wear the green jersey in Rio. Also, as part of the leagues efforts to continue to support the talents of the young men who take part in the league, the management of the team has been handed over from coach Mick Pender to former player Jimmy Bell. Pender explains: ‘one of the great things to happen this year is that we now have a system in place where one of the guys who played before is now going to take on the role of coach. I’m delighted to be mentoring Jimmy Bell in the role this year, it’s a great responsibility for him and he has been absolutely brilliant and he has worked really hard to get where he is, so its just reward for him.’
Jimmy and Mick were responsible for spotting the players with talent who stood out at the All Ireland Finals; no easy task when you consider over 250 young men from all over the country took part in the tournament, The standard of play was incredibly high, but Jimmy has total confidence in their selections. ‘I had to pick 40 players that I thought had talent at the All Ireland’ says Jimmy. ‘We then did a trial in Dublin and one in the country; picked twenty from that and then through another trial we narrowed it down to the final eight. In a way the team kind of picked themselves – if you want it and work enough and show real commitment then you’ll get there. They are a great team, playing really well together – I can’t wait for Brazil.’
The Street Soccer League, set was set up to support young men who find themselves experiencing difficult times in our society – whether affected by homelessness, addiction, unemployment, etc – it has proved to be an excellent stepping-stone back from the margins of society and into mainstream living over the past seven years. Watching this year’s team go through their paces at St Catherine’s community centre, they come across as a group of dedicated, talented athletes, determined to do their utmost to perform well for their country, belying the struggles that many of them have faced to get where they are today. The sense of camaraderie and goodwill each player has for his fellow-team mate is also inspiring, and could give the professionals in the game food for thought. There are no egos or prima donnas on this pitch!
‘It’s the seventh year we’ve participated in the Homeless World Cup since the inaugural tournament in Austria in 2003,’ says Sean Kavanagh, founder of the Street Soccer League program. ‘This team is full of enthusiasm; a really nice bunch of lads. They’ve gone through a really rigorous selection process this year, so they’ve done really well even to get this far’.
He adds: ‘We have to remember the hurdles these guys have faced in their lives – more than most people face in a lifetime - so it’s gratifying to see them all so confident, organized and focused. That is what we hoped to achieve when we started this street league, and it reminds us of how important it is to keep it going. The sense of personal achievement that can be got from participating in the league in general and especially in the World Cup, really does bring meaningful and long lasting change to lives.
Carl is from Ballyfermot, and has been playing with Cherry Orchard for over a year now. Aged 21 he is the second youngest on the team and can hardly believe he has been picked to represent Ireland in the World Cup. ‘The league is great – it keeps you going, and its great to meet people from other counties, but I cannot believe I’ve been picked to go to Brazil,’ he smiles. ‘I’ve been training really hard, doing a bit on my own as well, and going to the gym. I’m so proud to represent Ireland in the World Cup – we get an official Cap as well, so that’ll be something to show my kids and grandkids in years to come.’
It is Brian Farrell’s first year playing in the Street Soccer League. From Portlaoise, Brian had battled years of heroin addiction before being forced to go to England for rehab services. ‘I became addicted to heroin and everything went pear-shaped, I fell out with my family and everything. This is my first year in the league and I have to say playing football has really helped keep me in recovery,’ he says. ‘I played as a young lad but when the drugs took over I lost interest. Now its just soccer – its like been born again, and I can’t believe I’m playing for Ireland. It’s great, especially for my parents and family, the town – everyone is so proud of me. I can’t wait to go to Brazil.’
All the players have similar stories, and, it is fair to say without exaggeration, that most of them credit their involvement in the street league as the catalyst for change they so badly needed in their lives. Michael O’ Connell is another example of someone who has turned his life around completely, and after having serious problems with alcohol, is now a healthy, fit and happy man looking forward to his future.
‘I really believe that without football I wouldn’t even be here’ smiles Michael, who started drinking when he was fifteen and soon found himself on the streets as his alcoholism spiralled out of control. He hasn’t had a drink since entering a thirteen week recovery programme in Limerick, his home town and has been involved with the Street Soccer League for the past two years. This gave him the motivation he needed to stay clean. ‘Football is my life now – sure don’t they say it can change the world?’ he laughs. ‘I’m so proud to play for Ireland, delighted to have been picked or the team, but more so for my mother, father and family than for myself.’ Michael’s life has changed beyond recognition in recent months and he is also expecting his first child in December. ‘It’s brilliant’ he says. ‘Life is really good. 2009 was a bad year but 2010 has been the best year of my life so far.’
While the Street League is about much more than football, and is about building self-confidence and fostering a sense of inclusiveness for people who may have spent much of their lives on the periphery of society, for the players going to Rio, it is all about football and doing their best to bring that trophy home for Ireland. So are they in with a chance? Both Jimmy and Mick are playing their cards close to their chests.
‘Like every year you don’t really know what the chances are until you get there’ says Pender. ‘This team has come from all over Ireland – we have players from Dublin, Limerick, Portlaoise and Belfast, and they’re a great bunch of lads, working very hard at the football. We’ll go over and do our best, but once we go over as a team and come back as a team –well, we’ve won!’