Team Israel seeing real change thanks to player progress 

For Team Israel, on view at this year’s Homeless World Cup in Oslo are the fruits of a laborious process of team selection and training, and one that has allowed for real change with their group of players.

“We really believe in these guys and the way they can develop themselves. We are the coaching staff, but we have a friendly relationship with them and we love them. We are like one big crazy family,” reveals coach Omri Abramovitch.

L-R: Kobi Shalo, Omri Abramovitch, Reshetnik Bronislav (Slava), Dudu Elbaz

Central to the work of Football For The Homeless, the organisation set up by Omri alongside other coach Dudu Elbaz, is a unique model whereby the coaches become just as involved on the park as the players themselves. In this way, a spirit of equality runs through the team.

“We use football as a therapeutic tool. To get close to the players, we always play with them too. For all of our volunteers, it’s mandatory to play football with the players. That way we build up a close relationship with them. We really believe in this close connection,” confirms Abramovitch.

“Our goal is just to help them a bit. After many years of drugs, being in jail or on the streets, we push them up because they have a lot of possibility of self destruction. But when you see a guy use this power for self destruction in a better, positive way, there’s no limit to what they can do.”

Working alongside Abramovitch and Elbaz is coach Kobi Shalo, an ex-goalkeeper who played for his national side at youth level and was the first Israeli to play an official match for a Romanian club.

For him, seeing the players buy in to the atmosphere and fair play ethos of the tournament is something he himself never witnessed in the professional game.

“Everybody here plays together. Maybe they fight on the pitch and try to win, but after the match they hug each other, smile, take pictures and join hands. In professional competition you don’t have this. I played in tournaments and when we lost everybody would return to the hotel unhappy, because we wanted a better result. The brotherhood here is making me very happy.”

Some of the players in team had never left Israel prior to the tournament and faced legal problems just to get to Oslo. But the hard organisational effort has paid off, and has helped shake off a major side effect of homelessness: the scourge of loneliness.

“I think football is the most important thing here because it creates groups. Homeless people, from what I know, are very individual. They survive, though, and they survive alone. Suddenly we put them in a group as part of a team in the Homeless World Cup, and all the problems and issues about being in a group for them come out. It acts like a mirror for them,” reveals Elbaz.

And for Elbaz, having a captain in ‘Slava’ (Reshetnik Bronislav) leading the team at the tournament is extra special, given his background as an immigrant who arrived in Israel some 15 years ago alone, without job prospects or a roof over his head.

“It is in a sense poetic justice that ‘Slava’ is our captain. He came to Israel from Moldova as an immigrant when he was 35 years old. He couldn’t continue with his previous job, he was completely alone and so lonely. He didn’t trust people, and now he is the captain of the national side.”

‘Slava’ (Reshetnik Bronislav)

Speaking to Bronislav, his time at the tournament, forming part of the Israeli team, has helped him comprehend the dangers of living a life with loneliness at its heart. And for him, football is a ticket to a normative life.

“In the last few years I didn’t know anything other than loneliness, and I understand that being a lonely person is not right. It’s like a practice for my life. After the tournament I will be at home, I will return to regular society, and maybe I would like to learn something. I’ve learned right now how to be in the company of other people.”

Thanks to the general spirit of the tournament, Bronislav already feels like a champion, and it’s something that has helped change how he sees the world.

“The most important thing is that before I came here I saw life in black in white. It was a very extreme way to see things. Now I see everything with colours because I see people who don’t know me wishing me good luck and saying hello.”

Words: Craig Williams
Images: Romain Kedochim