TORONTO — In some ways, Dave Bidini found writing a book about the Homeless World Cup a little like booting a ball into a wide-open net — it simply wasn’t hard to find compelling stories.
“It was like walking into a living novel,” said Bidini, the author of Home and Away: In Search of Dreams at the Homeless World Cup of Soccer, during an interview this week from the patio of a hip Toronto coffee shop.
“You had 600 street soccer players from around the world, all with these completely divergent yet kind of universal experiences coming together. It wasn’t hard. And a lot of my job was really eavesdropping. The athletes were talking amongst themselves about their lives and their conditions, right?
“So, I didn’t have to do a lot of poking and prodding, it all kind of spilled out really easily.”
The Homeless World Cup launched in Graz, Austria in 2003 with the aim of using soccer to encourage the homeless to change their lives. The 2010 edition just wrapped in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Bidini, author and former guitarist for the Rheostatics, trailed Canada’s four-person entry to the 2008 event in Melbourne, Australia.
Canada’s squad included Krystal, a teenage runaway from Toronto’s hardscrabble Regent Park neighbourhood, Jerry, a pudgy, seat-cushion salesman, and Billy Pagonis, a former member of Canada’s national soccer team who saw his professional career deteriorate as he became addicted to OxyContin and cocaine.
“What surprised me was how . . . like you and I the players were,” Bidini said. “And how we’re all living by degrees, really. With a little bit of bad luck . . . you can descend like that.”
“This one Belgian guy who couldn’t even really play soccer, he was there because he was a good guy, it was the first time he’d ever really played. But he had a bad shoulder, and he never got it looked at, and he ended up losing his job. Because he lost his job, his marriage collapsed. And because he couldn’t work and he had no support, he got kicked out of his apartment.
“And he had nowhere to go, so he went to a shelter. There wasn’t any room at the shelter, so then you end up sleeping in a cafe or a doughnut shop or the (subway), and then the next thing you know cops are kicking you out, and the next thing you know you’re in jail, and then you’ve got a record, and it just spirals down because you’ve got no foothold, no support.”
Organizers of the tournament say that 70 per cent of the players who participate experience a “significant life change.”
, whether it involves kicking a dependency to drugs and alcohol, finding a home or job, repairing damaged relationships or pursuing an education.
Bidini was initially skeptical of that statistic until he witnessed the restorative power of soccer in person.
“I thought those numbers were stretched a little bit, but seeing the experience of the Canadian team firsthand, those numbers are really accurate, at least when it comes to team Canada,” Bidini said.
“The four athletes who went to Melbourne for the tournament all appear to be doing really well.”
Bidini has tried to keep in touch with the players he profiled in his book.
Pagonis, for instance, has been clean for more than two years. He’s reconnected with his parents and shares a home with them in Toronto.
Krystal, who emerged as one of the most talented players in the tournament, came home to finish high-school and is playing soccer professionally in Toronto. And Jerry, who fell on hard times after lawyers he hired stole a product idea from him, regained his patent and has been touring trade shows in the United States.
“They’re doing great now and you just sort of hope that continues,” said Bidini, a baseball cap pulled tightly down his forehead.
After the ’08 tournament, Canada’s homeless soccer program received a boost in the form of a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation. Canada was able to send eight players to the recently wrapped World Cup in Brazil, and Bidini says satellite programs have cropped up in Vancouver and other parts of Ontario.
Still, he has concerns with the larger Homeless World Cup. The Canadian team brings players regardless of their abilities — as Bidini puts it, “they bring players who are going to benefit most from the experience, and maybe if you can play a little soccer, that’s great.”
But other countries have taken a more competitive approach, and as a result, lopsided scores are common — as an example, Canada lost its opening match to Ireland this year 14-0.
It’s an issue organizers will need to confront, Bidini says.
“Half the teams are there because it’s a soccer tournament, and the other half are there because they want people’s lives to change,” he said. “I think (organizers) have to make a decision at some point on which way they want to go.”
“They didn’t have a mercy rule in the tournament, which struck me as very odd. The Canadian team’s manager wondered, how much do you learn when you’re getting killed 33-0? And in fact, a lot of the athletes are so fragile emotionally, in some cases it worked kind of the other way. Players would get really, really down.
“So it’s a tough one. They have to figure out a way to deal with that.”