The Referee Who Hung up his Boots to Pick up his Whistle

We wouldn’t have a Homeless World Cup without the volunteers who give their time to referee at the tournament.

And it’s worth reminding ourselves that the referees who take part love the game as much as any player, coach or fellow volunteer does.

Just ask 39-year-old Canadian referee Ed Kiwanuka.

Kiwanuka participated in the tournament as a player the last time the Homeless World Cup came to Mexico City in 2012. As a result, he is well aware of the possibility of personal change that exists among every single one of the players representing their respective countries.

“As a player, it was awesome. It was wonderful. To be involved in something that was so big to represent my country, Canada, and also the experience kind of boosted my self esteem and morale. I wasn’t the same after that.

“I was feeling very bad about myself. I was feeling very, very low even before I came to the Homeless World Cup. Right after, my confidence shot through the sky and I was inspired. I’ve continued to this day on a trajectory of becoming better and better and better.”

Kiwanuka’s introduction to street soccer began not long after finding himself homeless and on the streets of Brampton, a city around 45 kilometres from Toronto.

“Due to personal strife, I got depressed. I was on the streets. I went to a homeless shelter, and in the homeless shelter I got involved with Street Soccer Canada.

“After about a year of involvement with Street Soccer Canada, I was chosen to come and represent Canada at the Homeless World Cup in Mexico in 2012.”

Kiwanuka thanks two fellow officials, Australia’s Hary Milas and Scotland’s Iain McGill (both of whom are referees here in Mexico), for providing him with the motivation to pick up a whistle following his participation with Team Canada.

This is especially the case with Milas, who gave him a whistle back in 2012 for his adherence to the principles of fair play while turning out for Canada.

“Getting the whistle from Iain and meeting Hary Milas are what motivated me to become a referee. I went back to Canada following the tournament and got my licence, and I was lucky and very privileged to be called back to referee at this year’s Homeless World Cup.

“I keep the whistle really, really safe, and I have it and look it at it every time I feel down. So any kind of discouragement, I look at it and it boosts my morale.”

Being in such a position of having both played and officiated at the tournament, Kiwanuka knows which one of the two is the most demanding.

“To be a referee is a little bit more relaxing (laughs), but there is also a lot of demand on you. With all the eyes are on you and a little mistake on the field goes a long way to changing the game sometimes, and also to make some people angry or some people happy.

“So as a player you can make a mistake and your teammates can kind of bail you out. As a referee you are by yourself and if you make a mistake it kind of balloons.”

But by the same token, officiating at the Homeless World Cup mirrors being a player in so far as the feedback from other referees and the close bond that exists between them.

“Oh, it’s a family. It’s a brotherhood and a sisterhood among the referees. We eat lunch together, we work together, we have meetings together, and everybody is very happy and very encouraging. I’ve been given pointers and advice on the things I am doing well and on how to improve.”

He is the first to admit that on occasion the desire to lace up his boots and take to the field has washed over him while in charge of a match over the past few days.

“Actually, yes! Every now and then even when I’m on the field and I see somebody about to score, I feel like I should be the one kicking that ball into the net!”

Being here in Mexico, Kiwanuka continues to be encouraged and humbled by the dedication and sacrifices made by the players who have made it to the tournament.

“I know that we all have our own issues, and when we come here we bring our issues with us. But when the players get here and you see them work so hard to forget about whatever problems they have, and you see them encourage each other and regard each other as being part of one big family, that is very inspiring.”

Central to that is the spirit of fair play that runs through the tournament—one that the referees themselves work hard to instil, but one that Kiwanuka also believes “trickles down from the coaches, managers and Homeless World Cup staff to the players”.

Perhaps due to his experiences, Kiwanuka might be best placed to ask what he believes are the main factors that encourage participants to seek out a pathway to ensure they can return to the tournament in some way, shape or form.

“I think it’s to do with hope. It is also about recognition and the feeling of being included. Because when you are on the street and when you are really, really low, you feel alone—even when you are surrounded by other people.

“When you come here, you are part of a team and everybody regards you as somebody important. And I think that boosts you up and makes you want to come back again and again and again.”

With that in mind, are we likely to see Kiwanuka taking to the pitch with a whistle in his mouth in Cardiff next year as they celebrate the 2019 Homeless World Cup?

“I am intending to come back. Unfortunately, we don’t have a street soccer league near where I live in Canada so I don’t get an opportunity to practise the rules related to the Homeless World Cup. But I will continue to referee 11-aside matches back home following the tournament.”

Words: Craig Williams
Images: Anita Milas