Director, Europe, Middle East and Africa Section
"We're people who once lost everything. We'd be happy if anyone feels inspired by watching us work hard."
The early morning rain has disappeared, and the day has turned hot and extremely sunny in Paris. I sweat as I walk down the Champ de Mars Park, which stretches from the foot of the Eiffel Tower. While in search of the venue, I hear the sound of loud music and vuvuzelas from far off. There's no mistaking it. I've found the site of the Homeless World Cup, which is held every year by the Homeless World Cup Foundation. The foundation's parent body is the Big Issue Foundation, a UK-based charity that helps the homeless get back on their feet. Anyway, it's amazing--and I'm not just talking about the game, but also the size of the audience that has gathered at the venue, an almost equal number of volunteer staff, and the sheer number of sponsor company logos that adorn the fences of the soccer grounds. All of it was beyond what I had imagined. I was told that the participating teams paraded through the city streets on the first day of the competition (August 21st), cheered by the local citizens. An opening ceremony took place in one of the stadiums used when the FIFA World Cup was held in France, and Emmanuel Petit, who played for the French national team then, made an encouraging speech.
It's the third time the Japanese team, dubbed "Nobushi Japan" (nobushi means wandering samurai), has participated in the Homeless World Cup, in which a total of 64 teams from countries around the world are taking part. Teams from countries like Brazil and Mexico, where soccer is extremely popular, compete alongside teams from Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, Japan and other Asian countries. Unfortunately, Japan hasn't won a single game in the past two tournaments. Looking at the players on the other teams, it's pretty clear why the Japanese team hasn't. The other players are built differently. They're incredibly big, muscular, and make me wonder what exactly they've been eating. They have been through fierce competition and are therefore the 'elite' of the homeless world, according to people at Big Issue Japan. I almost nodded in understanding, when I thought, "Wait a minute, fierce competition between the homeless? Doesn't that mean that the homeless problem is that much worse in that country?" Then again, it's because they've been through such competition that the players are full of confidence. This aura of confidence makes them look even less like homeless people. I was told that the Japanese team also changed with every game they played. When they first came to France, they looked like tourists. Now, though, they look like soccer players who are focused on competing.
It's this focus that makes the Japanese squad play hard as well. Many of the players are injured by the powerful shots and forceful tackles. Even when they are already trailing by a large margin, the opponents remain merciless. This is a real competition. It's because they're serious about competing that they become frustrated when they lose, and it's the frustration that makes them become determined to win the next game. In this way, the faces of the players become more and more impressive. When I first heard that the homeless could get back on their feet by playing soccer, I honestly wondered how it could happen. Then I thought of how they practice daily, work to secure an address to get a passport and face tremendously strong teams as one. That's how they become more positive. Getting back on your feet isn't just about getting a job or practicing for job interviews. First and foremost, it's important to hold your head up high and have a positive outlook on life.
I hear that seven of the eight players on the Japanese team that participated in the 2004 Homeless World Cup in Gotenberg (Sweden) have found housing and new jobs since then. According to an official announcement by the organizers, more than 70% of all the players who participated in the past tournaments are on the road to getting back on their feet. Everyone participating has the same goal. That's why the players are all friendly to each other no matter where they've come from. Once the game is over, there are no sides. Players of the various countries get together and pass the ball around on the field outside the stadium. There are a number of accommodations where players from several countries live together and stay up late socializing almost every night. These are people that until recently didn't know how to communicate properly with others. The Nobushi Japan team is receiving a lot of attention, even though they've been suffering a series of major defeats. Reporters from many countries come to interview them. Everyone praises the Japanese team for coming all the way from Japan to participate in spite of the Great East Japan Earthquake. None of the Japanese players were actual victims of the earthquake, but they weren't able to gather sufficient donations, and at one point even gave up on making the trip. However, the Homeless World Cup organizers called on people to help invite the Japanese team to Paris on their website and collected donations from across the world. Thanks to these efforts, the Japanese team was somehow able to go to Paris. The Japan Foundation also helped in this regard. With all the support they've received, the players of the Japanese team felt a great sense of responsibility. When they weren't practicing, the players went as volunteers to help rebuild the disaster-stricken Tohoku region. The words at the head of this article are those of team captain Yoshihiro Matsuda.
During a break between games, Matsuda showed me the badge he wears. He said he received it from the head referee after the previous day's game. The referee is a volunteer from Australia. Every day, he gives the badges to the team or player that has impressed him the most. The badge says the "Spirit of Sport Award". I took it to mean that the referee was impressed by the extraordinary seriousness with which the Japanese team played. Beads of sweat trickled down Matsuda's face as he shyly but proudly held up his badge for the photo. His sweat seemed to be telling me that, "Life isn't about results or processes. It's about what you do to get to where you want to be."