The oldest referee with youth on his side

With a staggering 50 years’ experience under his belt, it’s not surprising some of the new Homeless World Cup referees look to Roelof Niesing for advice.

“They see me refereeing the games and they ask me for tips,” says Roelof, who will be celebrating his 71st birthday shortly after the 2017 tournament comes to an end.

From Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Roelof referees indoor tournaments and beach football back home, and puts his relentless energy down to keeping fit from running around on the sand. He also works as a volunteer with people who are homeless and has been involved in street soccer for around 15 years.

Roelof joined the Homeless World Cup referee team for the 2015 tournament in Amsterdam. It was an experience he’ll never forgot, but one he almost didn’t get to see.

“Two years ago, I had two types of cancer,” he says. “I had to have nine chemotherapies. The doctors told me I should have been dead.”

But Roelof still went ahead and refereed at the 2015 Homeless World Cup, even though he was going through treatment at the time. Having his team around him, he believes, helped him to get better. “My friends, the other referees, and my wife, they helped me to be strong. They are my supporters.”

Several decades stand between Roelof and many of his teammates, but he says age and experience make no difference to the team work and camaraderie at the Homeless World Cup. “It’s all one. The youngest is respectful to the oldest and the oldest is respectful to the youngest. You have to do it as a team,” says Roelof, who has been enjoying practical jokes and dancing with the other referees from around the world.

For Roelof, it’s the team spirit both on and off the pitch that makes the Homeless World Cup something he wants to be a part of for as long as possible. “The people, the players, everyone watching, the whole atmosphere of the tournament – it’s very good. The bonding of the people, they are having fun.

“I’ll wait to get my invitation, but I’d definitely like to do it next year. I’m happy to be alive and to be part of this.”

Words: Sarah Myers
Image: Romain Kedochim