The warmth of the Mexican people has rubbed off on Team Ireland captain Gavin Dowling during his participation in this year’s Homeless World Cup.
“Ever since I came here I’ve just felt so welcome in the city. It’s a beautiful city, and the love we are getting from the teams and the support from the home crowd has just been unbelievable,” he says.
In addition to the general public’s support, the camaraderie among the players has also made an impression on him.
“We are staying with the likes of South Africa and Russia in the hotel, and whether you are going for breakfast or you are passing each other everyone is giving each other high-fives and hugs. It’s amazing how a game of football can bring people together from all these countries after so much disruption in their lives,” he says.
Speaking of disruption, the 26-year-old from Dublin’s own progress as a promising young footballer was cut short after he fell into a drug-use spiral in his mid-teens.
“I was an addict. I was addicted to cocaine and tablets. When I was growing up I got sucked in with the wrong people from a very young age—probably towards the end of 14. I thought I knew best and went off with the wrong crowd and it led me down a bad road,” he says.
Thankfully, having sought help for his addiction, Gavin was able to turn his life around.
“I just came to my senses there about three years ago and knew I needed help. I was going around, I was just existing and not living, so I knew I needed to make the change and I contacted a treatment centre. And ever since day one when I went in there I knew what I needed to do, and that’s what I’ve done.”
Gavin credits football and getting involved with Irish Homeless Street League for providing him with the necessary drive and determination to move forward with his life.
“As they say: when you come on to a football pitch all of your problems go out the window. And it’s true. Even when you go training for your football team, it’s just like everything else is out the window. You focus on your training and you have a good laugh with the lads,” he says.
“It’s changed my life dramatically. I was involved in football with good teams as a schoolboy, but because I got caught up in drugs I never wanted to know about matches and all that. Ever since I got clean I haven’t stopped playing football. I eat, sleep and drink football now.”
As a reward for his efforts, he now finds himself in Mexico captaining his national team—something that is proving to be an unforgettable experience for the young Irishman.
“To wear the armband is an achievement of a lifetime. It’s my biggest achievement yet. I just hope we can return home with a bit of silverware for our friends and family, but also for us for putting in the hard work over here,” he says.
While he and his teammates are conscious of the support they receive from those close to them, he has also been surprised by the level of support from others too.
“Any time I come off the pitch I’m getting phone calls and messages. I have even heard from people I haven’t talked to in years congratulating me. It just boosts your confidence. It’s just great. It helps us as a team,” he says.
For those who may be struggling with their own dependency issues, Gavin has a message: “I’d like to tell people out there that there actually is hope. No matter how far down that road you are there is always a way back, and I’m living proof of that. Always as a boy I was dreaming about putting on the Irish jersey when I watched Ireland.
“And to actually be that person and be the captain and bring the boys out and listen to my national anthem is a dream come true. I always knew one day I’d be a superstar,” he says, laughing.
Words: Craig Williams
Images: Anita Milas