Russia Captures Homeless World Cup

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Russia defeated Kazakhstan 1-0 in the finals of the Homeless World Cup soccer trophy after a weeklong tournament.

Nearly 500 people from 48 nations took part, all sharing a common bond of destitution and marginalization and hoping to use the confidence gained during the street soccer competition to gain a better foothold in society back home.

"This event will absolutely change their perspective on life in so many different ways," organizer Mel Young said. "We can prove that by involving homeless people in sport, we have the power to change lives."

Many of the African players in particular were orphans or victims of war. Some of the European and North American players lost their homes after falling out with their families, while others had a history of alcohol and drug abuse.

Russian captain Vyacheslav Shelaevsky said he became homeless after moving from his remote village to St. Petersburg only to find that he did not have the right papers and was not allowed to work. Kazakh captain Ergali Kalikov related a similar experience.

"Football helped me save myself in difficult conditions. Football gave me new hope," Shelaevsky said.

"I will never forget these days at the homeless World Cup and the atmosphere of celebration. Finally, my dream has come true," he said Saturday, as his team cruised through 13 straight victories at the tournament.

His sentiments were echoed around the asphalt pitches in downtown Cape Town. The Ugandan and Namibian squads earned rapturous applause as they danced on stage; Swedish players joked with local children; South African players hugged Brazilians.

"I am so, so happy that I was here," said Jula Pilar Ferreira, a mother of three and member of the Brazilian squad.

The idea for the street soccer tournament was born in this city in 2001 after an international meeting of editors of street newspapers like The Big Issue, which is sold by the homeless in Britain, Australia, Namibia and South Africa. Its sponsors included European soccer association UEFA and sportswear manufacturer Nike.

The 15-minute games featured four players on each side, with small goals. Age was no object and men and women competed together.

The rationale behind the event is to instill a sense of pride -- and discipline -- in the players through being part of a team and to help them overcome problems in their regular lives.

Research published by the organizers said that of the players in last year's tournament in Edinburgh, Scotland, 94 percent reported a new motivation in life, 62 percent were coping better with alcohol and drug dependency, 40 percent had improved their housing, 38 percent held regular jobs and 28 percent had resumed their education.

"All of the team will take something back to the United States," commented Jeff Grunberg, president of the U.S. Homeless World Cup Foundation.