“I will leave here with many emotional memories”

While you will find the majority of Team Finland tucked up in bed catching up on their sleep and recovery in the morning time in Cardiff, that can’t be said for goalkeeper Marko Salmi.

He’ll be found at the crack of dawn in the kitchen, cleaning up, and preparing the morning coffee for the players to wake up to—tasks that reflect his ‘father figure’ status among the team.

“It’s something I enjoy very much,” said Salmi about the responsibility he places on himself to look after his teammates away from the pitch.

The 53-year-old hails from Tampere in southern Finland, one of five cities that street football organisation Homeless Academy Association operates in as part of its work organising competitions, coaching, educational, and recreational activities across the country.

And Salmi is a prime example of the success the organisation has had in helping vulnerable people within Finnish society to use football to combat addiction. He had been in prison for almost 10 years and started playing football when he was more than 50 years old. He’s still playing and will be playing for a long time.

“Football has helped me with my recovery [from addiction]. I’ve changed a lot, I can feel it. I played for many years when I was younger, but gave it up when I started using. But once I got clean I started playing again. I love it. I play football from the heart.

“It’s been really important for me not only in terms of exercise on the pitch, but therapeutically also. And the feeling of being part of something. It has given me a sense of belonging,” he said.

Having last left his native Finland over 30 years ago, it’s easy to see the effect that being away from home in Cardiff representing his country at the tournament has had on him.

“I’m really loving his moment. It’s a really good experience for me because the last time I was abroad was in 1986. Since then I’ve never been outside Finland.

“Cardiff seems to be a really nice city and very beautiful historically. And of course they have dragons!” he said.

And despite the fact that on the park results haven’t been going their way, he is enjoying competing as part of a closeknit team.

“The team are really helping each other. Even though we’ve been losing our matches, the people have been helping each other out and that has been excellent,” he said.

On his return to Tampere, Salmi will continue working with his local street soccer project, which allows him to use his own experiences of addiction to help people in positions of difficulty.

And he will do so with a heart full having experienced participating at the Homeless World Cup. “I will leave here with many emotional memories,” he said.

Words: Craig Williams
Images: Daniel Lipinski / Soda-Visual