Chatting on a sunny step near Oslo’s busy harbour front, seagulls wheeling overhead and the roars of a goal from one of the nearby pitches ringing through the air, Michal Danes suddenly goes quiet and smiles through misty eyes.
“I am seeing the sea here for the first time in my life,” he says quietly. “I’m so glad to be here. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Hailing from the landlocked Czech Republic, perhaps the lengthy wait to hear the lapping waves and experience the rolling haar isn’t too surprising. But there were plenty of times in Michal’s past when his life in years didn’t look like lasting long enough to experience much.
Roll back his timeline to growing up in a medium-sized village in the south of the country when he was: “Just a normal kid, playing all the time. I was a good boy, you could depend on me and I helped my parents a lot.
“I probably started trying football when I was seven or eight, messing around the house. Nobody else in the family — I have one brother and one sister — really played sport, although my dad played football when he was small.”
So far, so unremarkable. Then, for the small-town normal kid, things took a different turn.
He recalls, “I was unsure and not motivated to achieve anything better because of the boys I began hanging around with. I had no problems in school before this. In the sixth grade I was getting good marks, then I just started being with the wrong crowd.”
Michal stopped doing sports, stopped going to school, and started taking drugs and getting involved in criminal activity.
“My life totally turned around. If I had stuck to sport then, I would have been in a much better place,” he underlines.
Getting in with the wrong crowd had the knock-on effect of Michal stopping caring about everything. He had family relationship issues, started to smoke pot and got involved in petty crime.
“After elementary school, I went to the lowest part of the high school and didn’t complete my education because I didn’t work,” he adds. “I started stealing in a small way then went on to selling drugs. Then I started doing heroin and there was nothing else to care about.
“I ended up in jail for attacking someone and stealing.”
After three and a half years, Michal was released but soon became involved in an armed robbery and ended up in jail again.
“To start with I didn’t care about being back in jail,” he admits. “I was sentenced to five years this time.”
Then, after two and a half years, Michal was moved to a special part of the prison where he worked with a therapist who helped him realise how bad things had become. That was the turning point in his life.
“The moment I admitted I had a drug problem, I started planning my recovery. Speaking to the therapist was the moment I started to turn my life around.”
The prison had a football pitch too, and it was part of the wellbeing programme for the prisoners to play football. For Michal, however, it became more than a regulation exercise break.
“Football was important to me — when I arrived in the prison, the other guys took me to the pitch with them and took me into the team. It was important for me to be in that group of people. It was a feeling of belonging.”
Four days after his release from the five-year sentence, Michal started his recovery in earnest by joining a community programme, run by SANANIM (an NGO specialising in the prevention and treatment of substance abuse).
Their sports programme, called Everybody Can Win, helps vulnerable groups by organising football sessions and offering counselling and therapies, particularly for ex-offenders.
“They organise the Czech Republic team for Homeless World Cup, so I was lucky to be chosen by them for this team,” beams Michal.
“We only had a few sessions training altogether before we came to Oslo because the team come from all around the country, but I practised every day at the community programme centre.”
And here he is. So how has football changed his life?
He smiles, and stares back at the sea. “I now see that if a person does something positive he gets rewarded and gets to enjoy something in life. I have found the meaning of life by doing something good.
“I feel like I can change the feelings I used to get from drugs to the good feelings of playing football. I get that buzz from a good source now.”
And what of the normal-kid upbringing back in his southern Czech village?
“My family support me a lot and believe I can change and put my life back together. My mother is watching Facebook every day to see the live matches here in Oslo to support me.”
Mum, you would be proud of your boy.
Words: Isobel Irvine
Images: Romain Kedochim