“It’s great to go full circle”

For this year’s local referees, being a part of the Homeless World Cup in their home country has brought the tournament even closer to their hearts and deeper into their lives. Five of the Welsh referees participated in past tournaments as players, and all are united in their common love for both Wales and football.

Paul Nagtegaal, a KNVB referee and the head of the Homeless World Cup referee training course, is impressed with the group.

“They found confidence through teamwork, and now they are part of the referee family. This week, you can see them continue to develop that confidence. They were a bit nervous at the beginning, but now they’re starting to want more games as they get more excited to do them. It’s great to see, and everyone supports everyone.”

With mental health a key issue among the group and throughout Wales, football has proven to be a gateway to positive change.

Natalie is the veteran referee of the group. She played in the 2014 Homeless World Cup in Chile, and since then she has coached in two and now refereed in three, for a total of six tournaments. She is also now a Street Football Wales trustee.

“When I was a player, I suffered from mental health. Then I came back the next two years as a coach for the Welsh women’s team, and then in November of the following year I did a ref’s course, so then I came back as a referee for Oslo and Mexico and now I get to ref in my own country.

“It’s great to go full circle, from player to coach to referee. Not many people can say they’ve gone full circle, going through all that, but I enjoy being a referee because I still enjoy being involved in the Homeless World Cup. And you can only play once, unfortunately, and I think my coaching days were done, so it was time to step up and be a referee, a middleman.

“As soon as you blow that whistle, it focuses you in the game. I would love to continue refereeing with the Homeless World Cup. The more I do, the better. I just love doing it. I love making people smile, and sometimes they’re angry with me when they lose, but I can take the negatives with the positive. It’s a great event.”

Following a breakdown in her family relationships, Lydia found herself living in a hostel in 2012. By 2014, she had been introduced to Street Football Wales and was chosen to join the Welsh team to travel to Chile that year.

“It was far and away one of the best tournaments that I’ve ever been to, definitely one of the highlights of my life. And I’ve stayed with them now for the past five years going back for the match days, trying to do a bit more every time, trying to help them out. Because obviously if you want to use the word veteran, there’s a lot of people who’ve been here a lot longer than me, but then you’ve got a lot of people coming through, so you try and help them if you’ve been there for a while.

“And then [Wales street football organiser Keri Harris] offered me the opportunity to do the refereeing course and I thought, yeah, another string in your bow, so to say, so I thought, yeah, okay, I’ll do it. Never thought in a million years that they would’ve picked me and a couple of the other girls to actually come out and ref, and the fact that I’m doing it is amazing.”

She’s quite taken with the role of referee and has found the support of the other referees to be a huge factor in that at this year’s tournament.

“I’m enjoying it. I really am enjoying it. I never thought I would be. Nobody’s perfect, everybody makes mistakes, the thing is how we carry on. It’s amazing.

“More than anything, refereeing on Pitch 1 has been a highlight, because that’s the main stage. It’s amazing, it is really nice. But to be fair, just to be here is a highlight because watching every player, watching what it meant to one of them to score was amazing, just watching them and what it means to them when they score.

“I hope to carry on refereeing in future tournaments. But if not, I hope to go away with the Wales team as maybe a manager or maybe a kit manager or anything to do with the Wales team. I really enjoy doing what I’m doing now. It’s time for us lot to give back, really, more than take from them. We help the new guys coming through.”

Sarah first found Street Football Wales through a Welsh mental health organisation.

“I suffered anxiety, depression, and ended up losing a baby, so I had that sort of depression, as well. So, they introduced me to Street Football Wales, so then I started playing for them and within like six months I was in Oslo playing as a goalkeeper. And then we ended up winning the lowest cup, which is on the photos everywhere. It’s insane.”

About 12 weeks ago, a coach approached her with the opportunity to attend the referee training course. She agreed.

“They said you don’t have to, you can play for the reserves, but I thought no, this might give me a bigger boost, because I want to go into the police force and if you do anything like reffing or stuff like that, it normally gives you a boost into that job. So, if I can do well on this, then hopefully that can help me succeed in a better career in the future.”

As with the other new referees, she’s had her jitters upon stepping onto the pitch in her new role. But once the first whistle blew, everything changed.

“I love the Homeless World Cup. The atmosphere is amazing and everyone’s always so friendly. It’s a little bit different as a referee. You feel a bit pushed away from the players because obviously I can’t communicate with them fully. But you still talk to each other, it’s fine. And I’ve got another amazing group to hang around instead, and there’s such a good supporting team. They’re amazing, they help you with anything.

“I went to Street Football Wales because I was socially excluded through mental health … The first day was trials for selection day … and then we got chosen to go to Oslo for the Homeless World Cup in 2017. It was incredible. Putting on your Welsh jersey and singing your anthem for your country, it’s been a dream since I was a kid playing football. And then I had serious mental health issues so I couldn’t continue with sports or anything, and then I found Street Football Wales.

“Keri, the Welsh coach, put my name forward for the referee course; he thought I’d be a good ref, but then I was also chosen for the reserves. I was thinking long term; I could get chosen again and then go all the way around the world with them if I do good enough. You have to do it locally first before you can go internationally. So, we did our qualifications a couple of weeks ago and Natalie our ref is international, so she’s trained us up and now I’m here.

“The training was scary because I’ve been on the other side of the pitch playing. So the rules are the same, but it flips because you’ve got to tell them. When I step on the pitch, it feels 10 times worse than when I was a player because everyone’s staring at me, the decisions are me, the game is me. Although there are teams, it’s the ref, isn’t it? All eyes are on you. But it’s really good and I’m really enjoying it.

“Because it’s in my home country now, I hope that over the eight days I’ve become good enough to go internationally, you know, and wherever the Homeless World Cup can go, we can go too. It’s just more nerve-wracking because it’s in my home nation and everyone I know is here and staring at me. Whereas in Oslo, I didn’t have anyone except my team, no one yelling ‘Suze, Suze, Suze!’”

Football has been a gamechanger for Barry. Suffering from debilitating mental health issues, and increasing social isolation as a result, it was football that got Barry out and involved again. In 2014, he participated in his first Homeless World Cup, and he is now refereeing his first official international tournament.

“You can leave all your troubles on the pitch. I used to suffer from anxiety and paranoid schizophrenia. I take medication, but street football really helped me. I can play football now. I can go out with the boys now. Before I just stayed in my room.

“I play for an 11-a-side team and they can’t believe how far I’ve come. I’ve got more confidence playing 11-a-side now. The boys I’ve met on 11-a-side are like my brothers. There are barbeques now and pub all the time. It’s one big family.

The Homeless World Cup group is part of my family. I’ve known boys since I started training, boys from the Swansea league and the Newport league, we’re like one big family, street football is. I’ve made some good friends.”

This is Gemma’s first Homeless World Cup. A support worker for 16 years, she has worked with vulnerable adults, people with learning disabilities, and now homeless projects.

She initially thought that her connection to the tournament would be in a support role, helping two girls join the Welsh team. But then, after telling the Welsh coach that she had played 11-a-side football, he asked if she’d like to be involved as a referee.

“I’m feeling very nervous. I’m not used to cameras and all eyes on me. It’s a bit scary. But to be honest, the chance of it being in Wales, and I am Welsh, I don’t think it will happen ever again, so I feel quite privileged to be selected as a referee.”

Despite the nerves that come with her new role, Gemma has seen the positive impact that football can have.

“When I first went to Street Football Wales, the girls that I took and a couple of lads from the project. I got a bit of a team together—they were really, really nervous. But one thing I did notice was that everybody is so welcoming. Everybody’s got their own issues and that’s why everybody’s here, but they seem to be closer because of that. They support each other really well. Like if somebody’s having a bad day, they don’t even need to say it and other people are supportive. Other people will say ‘Do you want to talk?’ or ‘Do you want to be left alone?’, you know. The support is really fantastic. And it’s with all the teams.

“I’d definitely like to continue with Street Football Wales, regardless of what career path I take, even if it’s just to volunteer and go do the matchdays, refereeing for that, and if I can go help along the way.

“In the projects I’ve worked with homeless people, people get bored and there’s nothing to do. But especially if they’ve got mental health, they need something. I’ve seen the change in the two girls that I had that were selected and are here today playing for Wales and it’s just so positive for them. So, I think that it’s really important for them that after this is finished, they’ve got something else to keep them focused.”

Words: Mia Salvemini
Images: Mile 44