Street Football Wales is a project that tackles social exclusion in South Wales through football. All teams participating in the league are made up of people aged 16 and above who face social exclusion through homelessness, substance misuse, mental ill health and cultural issues. Others may have been involved in the criminal justice system or have been unemployed long term.
Rosa May-Harris has acted as a support worker for Street Football Wales for eight years alongside her husband Keri. In the following account, she tells the fascinating story of the Welsh Dragons’ trip to Paris for this year’s Homeless World Cup – despite the fact that they were not included in the tournament itself.
Street Football Wales – Embracing the Experience
May 2011. The time had come to select a team of players from the Street Football Wales (SFW) league to represent their country at the Homeless World Cup in Paris. Although not participating in the tournament itself, Wales decided to attend regardless due to the close proximity of Paris to the UK.
As a project, in consultation with the participants, we decided to attend the Homeless World Cup to support other nations and play in friendlies, having identified (on Google Earth!) a concrete pitch just a couple of hundred yards away from the tournament itself. “This will be called the ‘Stade de Galles’!” proclaimed ‘the gaffer’, Welsh Dragons team manager Keri Harris.
There were a few concerns expressed that our plans might not achieve the life-changing experience for the players that being in the tournament would and only time would tell if these views were justified. Nevertheless, most people – including the players from the league – were confident that the experiences on offer would have as positive an impact as competing in the tournament would.
So, the difficult task of selecting a team was underway and after much observation and discussion, the lucky eight were invited to represent Wales. Over the following 12 weeks there were a couple of changes due to personal challenges and the final eight who would travel to Paris were: Chris Dowling, Andrew Haftowski, Tina Dunn, Liberty Msipa, Chris Stockwell, Tommy Fender, Alain Ali and Jonathan Williams.
Training was underway and all were excited about the trip. SFW, in partnership with event sponsors Gwalia Care and Support, hosted a fundraising night at the Swansea Grand Theatre, which had been arranged several months previously and was a sell-out success.
Most of the team had never been abroad, and in fact there were players who had never been outside South Wales. The process of applying for passports was underway and yet again highlighted the hidden barriers that homeless people face.
Most of us take for granted the fact that we can apply for passports and might think that the only barrier in doing so for homeless people is financial. This is far from the case. In order to obtain a passport we must provide details and evidence of our parents’ country of birth. For many homeless people, one of the many factors that contributed to their situation is that of having been in care. There were people who didn’t know the full names of their parents, least of all their dates of birth. It was a huge challenge to get the applications submitted with what we hoped was all the required information!
On the morning of travel to Paris we had to detour to the sorting office to pick up Tina’s passport, which we had been assured would be there. We had to believe that it would indeed be there as we had no plan B if it wasn’t – leave her at the sorting office with packed bags and a broken heart? No – we believed it would be there and, thank goodness, it was.
In the lead up to the trip, David Griffiths, Football Association of Wales kit manager, delivered Welsh kits, trainers, coaches’ jackets, kit bags, training bag, balls, gifts and mementoes for opposition teams. Their kind generosity was much appreciated and provided the players with a sense of honour that comes only from being presented with a national kit!
On the last training session before the trip, Ashley Williams, our newly promoted Premiership patron, came and gave an inspirational talk to the players about what it means to represent your country. The Swansea City star shared stories with the team and took part in a penalty shoot-out with the keeper. The excitement and anticipation within the team was tangible and everyone was ready for all their hard work to be put into practice.
We travelled to Paris in a minibus and on the ferry. The minibus travel was an experience in itself with everyone and their bags crammed in like sardines for hours on end on both sides of the Channel. Despite that, the team arrived at the accommodation in high spirits. It was late and everyone was looking forward to settling in and getting some sleep – which would have been possible if we had not been locked out!
We had booked two apartments in a self-catering complex and reception was closed. Eventually, we managed to access the keys from a safe in reception, with the help of a very kind French man who we’d accosted as he walked by and who ended up making several phone calls on our behalf!
The first full day in Paris saw the Welsh Dragons kit up and attend the opening ceremony of the Homeless World Cup. We sat in the stands and cheered the teams as they entered Pitch 1 with flags flying. We sang songs, chanted and made some noise with a vuvuzela.
It was immediately clear that we had certainly made the right decision in attending – the team were not in the least bit disappointed that there was no last-minute place for Wales. They were still part of a once in a lifetime experience by being amongst hundreds of people from all over the world who shared circumstances that were so similar to their own. They were involved in a celebration of the strength and determination of humankind.
And so the Homeless World Cup kicked off and it was the start of a unique international Street Football experience at the World Cup for the Welsh Dragons. This experience brought daily encounters with people from all over the world. Teams who were playing in the tournament were incredibly welcoming of Wales and were delighted to play. By the third day, teams were approaching us and requesting a game – word had got around and the Welsh Dragons ended up playing 16 games over six days. We won 13 – losing only to Poland, Argentina and Nigeria.
Any concerns that others had expressed about the team feeling excluded by attending without a place were distant memories as the Welsh Dragons were experiencing social inclusion in its truest form. They made friends with local people and played games with them – arranging the games themselves, overcoming the language barrier and using some impressive communication skills!
A challenge was set for the team to plan the journey from the accommodation to the Champ-de-Mars without any ‘staff’ involvement, which was met with great success. They shopped and cooked and cleaned for one another – daily tasks that many take for granted but which for others are new and welcome experiences. On their travels, outside a block of flats in the suburbs of Paris, the team enjoyed a skills ‘battle’ with a group of young French men – a real Street Football experience.
Each day the Welsh Dragons played at the Stade de Galles and supported teams in the Homeless World Cup. There were a couple of friendlies played on a HWC official pitch, arranged by the volunteers who had wanted the team to have that experience. The Welsh Dragons’ goalkeeper had been diving on the concrete pitch of Stade de Galles for days and watching him land on Astroturf rather than concrete was comical. Ironically however (and perhaps more comical still), he managed to sustain his worst injury playing on the soft surface!
During the course of the week, Louis Garvey, England HWC team manager and Man Utd Football in the Community coach, came to Stade de Galles and facilitated a coaching session for the Welsh Dragons. The team thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated Louis giving his time to them in this way.
Another stand-out experience for the team was the friendship that developed with Nigeria. Yomi, the Nigerian manager, had arranged for his players to meet with Wales and share their stories. The Welsh Dragons were exposed to stories from a culture so different to their own yet where the challenges and stigma faced were so similar. Addresses and phone numbers were exchanged and many plans made between the projects of the two countries for future partnership working.
A further highlight came on the final day of the tournament when Luxembourg, another team who hadn’t secured a place in the competition, travelled to Paris to meet up with the Welsh Dragons and play a friendly at Stade de Galles! It really was fantastic.
The end of the tournament saw the team having had the experience of a lifetime, ready to return to Wales with a renewed motivation for change and life in general. It had been one of the most positive and amazing tournaments in the history of the Welsh Dragons.
There’s a well-known saying that it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts. Well, the Welsh Dragons have news for you – it’s neither winning nor taking part that counts. There is a third option, one which we discovered in Paris…. simply embracing the experience.
What’s more, Street Football Wales had been given the great news prior to the trip that a bid for three-year funding for the project had been successful – the recruitment process is underway as we write and there are participants of the league, including two Welsh Dragons, involved in this.
One of the 2011 Dragons has enrolled in and started college to study Maths and English GCSEs, another has joined a Saturday league team and another is involved in setting up Saturday and Sunday league teams. These players won’t need Street Football Wales in the same way as they once did.
And this is what it’s all about…..
Street Football Wales will never feel sad when people leave the project – we would love for there to be no need for it to exist at all. But while there is a need for it, we hope to see many people work their way through the service and engaging in mainstream sport and education opportunities.
Now that’s social inclusion.