The Welsh dragon is a near ubiquitous sight around the Homeless World Cup in Cardiff. It’s on t-shirts, on billboards, it’s painted on kids faces, and it’s on the flag that flies high from Cardiff Castle nearby, peeking through the trees of Bute Park.
It’s now also on the thigh of Team Sweden player Marie Kopka in the form of massive tattoo to help the 26-year-old remember her time at the tournament.
Approaching her final match with the Swedish women’s team, Kopka, from Gothenburg, tried to sum up her emotions.
“I’m feeling quite nice. It’s been a hell of a trip. Meeting people from a lot of different countries and stuff like that and it’s been wonderful. The weather has been amazing. It’s only rained on one day, but that was quite nice too. I got the nicest tan.
“Even though we lost a couple of games, we still had fun. This is something you get to do once in a lifetime. Who can play in the world championships? It’s amazing,” she said.
Having spent nine years playing handball to a good level, Kopka only started playing football very recently. She has surprised herself with how quickly she has picked up both a good ability and love for a game she had never had any experience of.
“We don’t train as much as most of the teams here. And many of us never played football in our lives before. I started playing in the winter, in December. So just to be here and be playing football in this kind of cup—if someone said it to me three years ago, I would be like ‘bullshit’. It’s very cool.
“When I was younger I played handball for nine years. I was really good. But it’s the opposite of football, so when I was going to play with my feet I was terrible at the start.
“I was hiding behind other people and saying ‘don’t pass to me, I don’t want the ball’. But now I can do it and I’ve grown quite good at it,” she said.
The street soccer programme in her native Sweden is ran by Gatans Lag, an organisation that uses football as a tool to beat homelessness, addiction, and other types of social exclusion.
Kopka became part of the programme while overcoming her own addiction at a time when she lacked a permanent roof over her head and was instead staying with friends. Joining the programme was a decision that has truly changed her life.
“I was in a programme for drug abuse and some of the people who I went there with played street soccer. And they told me they were going to go and play soccer with this team who is for homelessness and crime and drug free and I was like ‘no I don’t want to’, but I went anyway and I found something in it.
“When you are in a place where you don’t feel like you belong, it makes a lot of difference. We are having fun and we are training too. That gives you a lot of happy emotions, and you’d rather do that than go back to your old life. Because it gives you more.
“And when you live that life you are kind of ‘people shy’. And when you come in to that place where you play football and you have to communicate with your teammates and you know that they have the same background as you, it makes it a whole lot easier,” she said.
That new life that football has given Kopka is evident not only in the improvements to her physical and mental wellbeing, but also her living situation.
“Being part of my team means that I can find stuff that I thought that only I felt, and we can share our difficulties with one another and help each other to move forward.
“I’ve been training a lot by myself too because I feel the difference in my confidence and my strength in my body. And many of us have apartments and jobs, and one month ago I got an apartment and I’m going in to work now [in a diner].
“A year ago I didn’t think that was possible at all. I was staying at friends’, kind of, moving around much.
“So everything is fixed,” she said.
As for the memories she will take with her of being part of this year’s Homeless World Cup, we only need consider the fact that she will return to Gothenburg with a permanent reminder inscribed on her thigh.
“I have the Welsh dragon tattoo, and I got it two days ago because I want to always remember the opportunity I got to play here and the amazing tournament, with all the people and all the good football and everything.
“I’ve been a part of this,” she said.
Words: Craig Williams
Images: Daniel Lipinski / Soda-Visual