“Myself and many of us say that something has to happen to you—for me it was a near-death experience, in the midst of a difficult father and son relationship. Falling through ice while skating on a frozen lake as a young boy is what made me decide that I wasn’t going to just be an average Joe, you know. I thought surely living had to be more than just working and coming home, working and coming home.”
Goalkeeper Mika Poutanen comes from Rauma, a city in the South West of Finland. A drug user for 27 years, 13 times in and out of prison, softy spoken, radiating calmness, adorned with tattoos and here with us at the Homeless World Cup 2018 in Mexico City.
“All these tattoos were done by a friend of mine while I was taking drugs. Since going sober I had a professional tattoo artist go over them properly.”
For Poutanen, this remaking of his tattoos is a way of acknowledging his past, not erasing it, but making it part of his today and tomorrow.
“It all started with these anti-drug sessions led by the cops in school. They were actually telling me what drugs do to you: cocaine makes you feel like a real man; heroine you feel really fucking good; LSD is like a whole new world. I was like ‘wow’. They even showed slides, so they really sold it to me!
“I mean, we all think drugs are fun at first. It was a choice to do it,” Poutanen says. “Getting involved with older drug users and criminals led me to dealing while using. Then you really feel like a man—the ‘big dealer’.
“It isn’t clear when it stopped being fun, but at some point you can’t face reality without being high. So that was scary and confusing, I suppose.”
The same motivation that led Poutanen into a life of drug abuse also led him to a life without it: “It was the same thing as a kid when I fell through the ice with my skates. I thought there has to be something else in life than using and going into prison, using and going into prison.
“The hardest things about getting sober is that you don’t have any friends because you have to remove yourself completely from that life. This is where football really helps: you have a whole new group of friends who are also sober.
“I played football a little bit as a tiny kid. I was a goalie back then as well, but sport was only really part of my life in prison: weights, martial arts and football. Then in 2016 on probation from prison I started playing football again. The football was part of a recovery programme organised by an NGO called Tietu Ry.”
The Finnish organisation Tietu Ry provides a service for people suffering from drug addiction and alcoholism, and includes a football programme that works in partnership with the Homeless Academy Association. The association organises football competitions, coaching, educational and recreational activities across five cities in Finland.
“Straight from prison, before I was part of Tietu Ry and the Homeless Football Academy, I went to another place, Kankaanpaan A-koti, a real rehab centre,” Poutanen says. “This is where I did the Minnesota rehab where you have a lot of therapy, you have to face your family and friends and whoever you have hurt on the way. It took the street, tough guy out of me until all that was left was me.”
The Minnesota model is an individualised treatment method based on a person’s addiction concerns. The family of the individual is asked to actively participate in the treatment, and psychiatrists play a large role throughout the rehabilitation process.
“Naturally you sometimes have that feeling you want to use again, but when you know you have a practice that evening, the next day, or that you can call one of the guys that you play with, it all really helps. When I go to practice and go at it hard, I get those endorphins that I used to get from drugs.
“This Homeless World Cup is the feeling of being part of something, a team, and then you see that the team is part of a larger family, which is such a contrast to before when I was taking drugs and it felt like the rest of the world didn’t understand me.”
Being here at the Homeless World Cup is such a momentous experience for Poutanen and his team—on arrival team mate Eetu Pakkanen got the event inked on to his skin.
“What it comes down to, I think for all of us, is freedom. That was what I was looking for, and I realised that freedom is in your choices and now I have the choice to do whatever I want.”
On asking about his future dreams and goals, this freedom fighter suddenly goes quiet, unsure of how to answer:
“It is difficult to put into words what my dreams are for the future. I am clean. A simple nice life content with the people around me. It is hard to say because I am really going day by day. That is a question for you, but for me it isn’t completely relevant—it is all about today and tomorrow.
“I’m beyond lucky to be a triple dad and a triple granddad and to be part of their lives these days. I, naturally, regret not being there earlier in their lives, but I was protecting them from my life when I using. There are no words for how much I appreciate this second chance at life.”
Words: Deborah May
Images: Daniel Lipinski