“The universal language was always smiles and hugs”

Often people ask us the question, what are the players from the Homeless World Cup doing now?

Proud Scots Billy Howe and John Jack represented their country at the Homeless World Cup in Cardiff. We caught up with them in early 2022 to find out how they were getting on and took a trip down memory lane remembering that remarkable week in the Welsh capital. 

“The Scottish team, we inspired that whole tournament.”

“From the accommodation, you’d get to Bute Park, and you’d have to walk all the way around to the front and as we were walking around whoever was on the commentary, would be like ‘And there’s the Scotland team just arrived!’ We were just singing Loch Lomond, or whatever it was.

“The Scottish team, we inspired that whole tournament.” Image credit: Daniel Lipinski

“We were Scottish, and we had that grrrrr, that bit of grit about us. So, we were all singing and dancing and to be able to go away and do that was just brilliant,” said Billy.

“It was a life-changing experience absolutely. We were just high on life, on absolutely nothing, nae drugs. And wow! Just what an experience,” said John.

Billy and John both joined Street Soccer Scotland before the tournament in Cardiff and are now firm friends. Their friendship and the people at Street Soccer have kept them going and nearly three years later they’re both core members of the team in Dundee.

Becoming Street Soccer Scotland’s poster boys

First starting as volunteers, they are now both employees running sessions across the city. You could almost describe them as poster boys for Street Soccer Scotland, they’re even the voices on the switchboard at the new Change Centre in Dundee.

I think it’s safe to say neither of them expected to become role models when they came along to Street Soccer Scotland a few years ago and they’re still surprising themselves by how inspiring they are to other players.

“It’s positivity, positivity thrives from positivity in this place, there’s nae negative, it’s all positive”. Billy and John at the Change Centre in Dundee in early 2022.

“The boys will hear a story of how we’ve got to where we are, and they’re blown away by it and they want a bit of that. Whether you like it or not, you’ve got to pinch yourself and be like, nah, I’m not a role model but you kind of are – especially when it’s a couple of years down the line,” Billy said.

Running sessions for Street Soccer Scotland with partner agencies has also given the friends a real boost.

“It’s positivity, positivity thrives from positivity in this place, there’s nae negative, it’s all positive,” said John.

It’s a long way from where they both were a few years ago.

Before joining Street Soccer Scotland and coming to Cardiff, both Billy and John were struggling and in temporary accommodation. John had been in a Salvation Army homeless hostel for about a year.

“It if wasn’t for Street Soccer, I’d genuinely not be alive, it’s scary to say but it’s true.” – John

“It was awful, I was at the lowest point in my life, I was suicidal and the last place you want to be is away from all of your support and stuck in a room with people you don’t know. That was hard but once you got that support network around you, it was a lot easier and you had more structure in your life, more hope as well.

“It if wasn’t for Street Soccer, I’d genuinely not be alive, it’s scary to say but it’s true.”

“Cardiff was an eye opener”

Despite their personal struggles, meeting other players at the Homeless World Cup in Cardiff gave them a new perspective.

“Cardiff was an eye opener; you’re going down there with all of your problems and meeting people from fifty odd different countries, and you realise your problems aren’t quite as bad as what other peoples are,” John explained.

“We met people from India who never had a house, so the fact that we were crying over being in supported accommodation or a hostel and these guys were in a corrugated iron hut.

“Don’t get me wrong, some people in our group had lost their family, lost their mums and dads, lost their sisters through abuse, addiction. We had Peshin on our team who was an Iraqi Kurd who fled the fighting, his dad was killed in front of him. His mum and sister went on one lorry, and he went on another lorry, and he’s never seen them since,” Billy adds.

Lots of the Scottish team gave away their clothes and kit to some of the African teams who had nothing, including the goalkeeper who gave away his gloves.

Billy remembers, “It was genuinely anything you had, socks, boxers, training kit, you’d be like, there you go. The boy [who was given the goalkeeper’s gloves] was in tears, tears of happiness.”

“It was just the only thing we could do, apart from have that empathy for them, we could give them a hug.”

“Most people never knew each other’s languages, so the universal language was always smiles and hugs.”

A week in the life of a celebrity sports player

The Homeless World Cup runs for 8 days, and a lot happens in that time. For everyone involved it’s a hugely emotional time. The positive press attention was something Billy and John both found overwhelming at times.

Billy explained: “The only time you get a name in the papers, it’d be court stuff, it’s negative stuff. It’s criminal behaviour.” John agreed: “It’s not in a positive light.”

That all changed in the run up to and during the tournament, with both players featured in national press, Billy was interviewed for half an hour on BBC Radio 5 Live.

It was the first time they’d ever been recognised in the press for something positive. Billy said: “I’d had a couple of positive things in my life but nothing that stands out. Nothing that was in the paper.”

Sharing food with Hollywood actor Michael Sheen

Another surreal moment for both was seeing Cardiff Ambassador and supporter Michael Sheen walking around during the tournament. Billy was determined to get a photo with the Hollywood actor and walked around to try and get hold of him.

Michael finally stopped to watch the famous keepy-uppy competition, which at that point had got into the thousands. Spotting his moment, Billy asked Michael for a photo.

‘Yeah, he’s [the player doing keepy-uppies is] Scottish, mind if we get a wee photo?’ And he asked me for a bit of pizza, I’ll give you a photo if you give me a bit of pizza. So, I think he looked at us funny, and so I got a couple of photos. But just like that I was standing there having my photos and he’s eating my pizza off my plate.”

Billy with Michael Sheen at the Homeless World Cup in Cardiff

Billy laughed as he told the story, acting out how put out he was that Michael Sheen was eating his pizza. Now whenever someone mentions the famous actor, he remembers the time he was in Bute Park in Cardiff smiling for a photo, while Michael Sheen ate his pizza.

Moments like these and being seen in a positive light made the Homeless World Cup remarkable for both Billy and John. For the 8 days in Cardiff, they were sporting heroes, celebrated for their achievements on the pitch and what they’d overcome.

Now they’re giving players in Dundee that space. It might not be a global stage, but it’s a place where whatever your past and whatever your living situation is, it’s only about the positives and what you do on the pitch that matters.

Words: Rebecca Corbett
Images: HWCF or provided by Billy