The Greek team has become a staple part of the Homeless World Cup over the years thanks to their spirit of camaraderie, fair play and fun that emanates from the players both on and off the pitch.
And we have men’s/mixed team manager Christos Alefantis to thank for his work behind the scenes with NGO Diogenes and street paper Shedia in embodying what the Homeless World Cup is all about.
“We witness changes from day one in the sense that our project’s motto is that we play football to become better people and not necessarily better footballers. And we look to select homeless people, not homeless football players.”
Alefantis has been bringing teams to participate in the event ever since Copenhagen in 2007, and each time he attends the event with the Greek team he reiterates the importance of making the most of the tournament and within the wider picture of practising sport.
“We always look how we can really become better people through sport, through interactions and the little challenges that we face on the field. We talk with the players constantly about how we can bring the best out of ourselves, how we improve as people and as a small social unit and take this from the pitch to our real lives. That’s what it is about.”
Competing at the event allows for all teams to mix with one another and learn more about other cultures, traits and ways of life different to their own, and Alefantis
is well aware how important this can be as a real learning experience for his players.
“We get the teams together, sit down in the lobby of our hotels and get the players to talk to each other. We do it with players and teams from outside of Europe so that it’s completely new for our players. This is what we are pursuing. And we encourage our participants to really get involved.”
And while many teams might look at the fixtures and hope for easy passage into the latter stages into the competition against what might be regarded as ‘lesser’ footballing nations, the Greek philosophy is the exact opposite, and one to be admired.
“When the groups are drawn or set up our ideal grouping are not with teams that are weaker than us at football but teams from far away places, because it’s a new experience for the players. I want them to play teams like South Korea, Grenada, Cambodia, as for us it offers a window to another civilisation, another way of life, and another life lesson as well.”
In September last year, Alefantis helped take the football programme on the road thanks to a mobile pitch, like the ones used in the Homeless World Cup tournaments, visiting refugee camps up and down the country to promote football as a bridge between cultures.
“We contacted the Ministry for Immigration inside the refugee camps, and our homeless football team, with our pitch, started making visits. We made 17 visits over the season to refugee camps to give some joy to the little Syrian kids and the Afghani kids and other refugees and embrace each other through football.”
And not only are the visits helping bring enjoyment to those living in the refugee camps, they are also helping those involved in the programme to take on new, personal roles the likes of which they may not have had the opportunity to realise previously.
“What I particularly like about the project is that, through their actions, our homeless players have themselves become community leaders. That’s very important because we said to them: ‘You go there to give some joy. You know, you are creating the scenario and conditions for these people, so that they can have fun’. This helps our players to overcome their own prejudices and misunderstandings that they may have. So it’s been very, very successful.”
In fact, so successful has it been that there are now football projects in place within the camps themselves, with those participating using footballs and sporting equipment provided to them by NGO Diogenes and Shedia.
They have even visually documented the work they have done so far in an effort to really shine a light on the project and inform people all over the country, and wider afield, about the work that is ongoing in the refugee camps.
“We’ve taken a professional photographer with us on our visits to capture these beautiful human moments, and this is already a photographic exhibition that will travel all over Greece and hopefully all over the world talking about how football can help people from more or less the same circumstances.”
And with that in mind, Alefantis doesn’t see any reason why, at some point in the near future, a player from one of the camps may not pull on a Greece jersey to represent the country at a Homeless World Cup event.
“Of course we will want that because we will always look to have a diverse team featuring those who have suffered from homelessness and drug addiction, as well as people who are asylum seekers. If they keep coming to training, get a residence permit and they adhere to the principles about love and solidarity, then of course they will be part of it.”
Words: Craig Williams
Images: Daniel Lipinski and Ole Christian Eklund