Welsh Manager Recalls the First Ever Homeless World Cup

The Graz 2018 European Street Football Festival will take place in the venue that hosted the first ever Homeless World Cup in 2003. Since then, the Homeless World Cup Tournament has grown from 12 to 64 teams. And while the week-long event has now more than trebled in terms of number of games and participants, some things have remained the same, such as the inclusive spirit of the tournament and the invaluable support of host cities and volunteers worldwide.

There are even some countries who have been part of the Homeless World Cup since the very beginning, and some of their staff remembers fondly the earlier Homeless World Cup events. Keri Harris, the Welsh team manager and founder of Street Football Wales, is a veteran at the Homeless World Cup, having organised the Welsh squad for the Graz 2003 Homeless World Cup.

Funnily enough, I wasn’t interested in coaching football at the time,” says Harris. “Other than supporting Wimbledon FC, I was more into Rugby.” Back in 2001, Harris was working as a Regional Manager in Big Issue Cymru (The Welsh street paper). “My director came back from an INSP conference in South Africa and told me about this ridiculous idea of a Homeless World Cup featuring teams of homeless people from around the world, all coming together to play football and raise awareness about homelessness. She told me that she had volunteered me to organise the team from Wales” Like many others, Harris thought that the idea of a Homeless World Cup was naive and far-fetched. Harris says that he wasn’t bothered by the task he had been volunteered to. “I never thought that it would happen and that it was a crazy idea from somewhere, so I did nothing.” Little did he know that this crazy idea was to become a huge international event. “It was only six months later when she asked how the team was getting on that I realised this might actually happen. I initially tried to quit, but she wouldn’t accept it.” Reluctantly, Harris now faced the task of recruiting a full squad of players, which he admits was harder than he had originally thought.

After a few weeks of promoting the idea around hostels with my partner in crime Jan Collard,” – Collard worked closely with Harris to develop Street Football Wales – “We started a weekly training session with about nine players. It was crazy. We were training with new players every week as we lost so many throughout the process due to their personal issues.” Harris admits the process to be a “huge personal learning curve.” The difficulties faced by Harris and his team continued to pile up. The team lost their best player three days before the tournament. “He was from Tanzania, with refugee status in Wales, and we couldn’t get his passport and visa sorted in time,” recalls Harris. Securing travel documentation and permission for players continues to be a challenge, particularly for players with refugee and asylum seeker status, as well as players requiring a visa to visit the host nation. The team were really disappointed about the loss of their best player, Harris confesses this to be one of his biggest regrets. “He was incredible, and we’re saddened that he had to miss out on such an opportunity through no fault of his own.”

From the vault: First ever Homeless World Cup Team to represent Wales. Graz, 2003.

As if things weren’t bleak enough for the Welsh squad after losing their best player three days before the event, they lost their goalie the day after. “We were really desperate for players, so I went to a hostel two nights before we flew out and was like ‘Right! Who’s got a passport, can kick a ball, and fancies coming to Austria for a week on Sunday?’ We recruited our final player that night and ended up flying to Graz with 6 players.”

While ensuring players have all documentation ready is always a chaotic endeavour, Homeless World Cup Foundation works closely with the host nations assist teams with visa applications. Team selection is also now stricter that it was for Wales at the time, which means that players are participants of their football programme and are selected well in advance.

After the event and once players reach the point in which they no longer require their services, national football programmes can lose touch with the players but, on some occasions, strong friendships emerge. “I’m still in touch with four of the players who made it to Graz. The ones that are still with us are doing really well. One of them, ‘The Cat’ Williams – who played as goalie for us after we begged him to – has just got married. Lee Jones, our captain in 2003, became one of my closest friends and was also the coach for the our teams between 2004 and 2009.”

Looking back at the 2003 event, Harris admits that he never thought the concept of a Homeless World Cup would amount to much. “I never thought the first one would happen, so not in my wildest dreams did I think I’d still be organising and managing teams to attend the tournament fifteen years later. It is an incredible event, and the only sad thing is that not everyone gets the opportunity to visit and watch it. You have to see it to believe it!”

From the vault: The cover of a photo album of the Graz 2003 Homeless World Cup.

The Welsh Squad, as featured in the photo album of the Graz 2003 Homeless World Cup.

Team Austria: Featured in the photo album of the Graz 2003 Homeless World Cup.

Returning to the place where it all began means a lot to everyone involved at the Homeless World Cup, and Harris is no exception, as he believes that the 2003 Homeless World Cup was a catalyst for change in his own life. “I’m so excited to be going back to Graz. I have such fond memories of the city, the people and also the tournament. For me, it is going to be quite emotional because the Graz 2003 changed not only the players’ lives, it also changed mine. To be going back with a women’s team is also extra special, as we have worked so hard over the past few years to build our female programme.

Street Football Wales has grown over the years, reaching more than a thousand players every year. “We didn’t exist in 2003, and it was only through attending the tournament, seeing the impact on our players that gave me the belief that I could build a project like Street Football Wales when I got back from Graz.”

Team Wales will join fourteen other squads in Graz from July 2-7. The European Street Football Festival will see players attending different workshops from July 2, and the football tournament will kick of on Wednesday 4th at 2:00 PM CEST.