Homeless World Cup Interview with Mel Young and David Duke

‘Why do the seagulls follow the trawler?….It is because they expect sardines to be thrown to the sea.‘ As Eric Cantona eloquently displays, football and philosophy very seldom come to a sensible confluence point. If its not seagulls and trawlers its Rafael Benitez’s priests and mountains of sugar. As the professional game moves further from reality philosophical meaning becomes obscured. However the relationship between football and philosophy is far from over. From the chubby five-a-side player falling over himself doing a stepover to big clubs running community projects philosophy thrives. Critically though this relationship rarely has an impact that spreads much further than the locale of its practitioners. But there is one movement that has broken through onto the global stage and is making a difference to thousands of people worldwide.

The Homeless World Cup breaks through the mumbo-jumbo and the money grabbing to bring real change through its global message. The organisation’s motto ‘A ball can change the world’ is simple enough but it serves as a symbolic reduction of the genius within founder Mel Young. Taking a creative approach towards the problem of homelessness Young’s organisation looks at instigating vital skills within individuals to get them back into society. Even at the annual tournament, hosted this year in Rio de Janiero, football is merely a means to an end. Young looks to use the tournaments to create genuine legacies, he argues that ‘legacy is about people, we aim to change player’s lives during the tournament so that they can go home inspired and influence others’. This distinctive approach to social change is productive and the numbers speak for themselves. Research after the 2007 tournament in Copenhagen showed that 93% of players had a new motivation for life and 71% had significantly changed their life for the better.

Revolutionising the way to tackle homelessness has been very successful in initiating change within individuals but Young sees that problems within wider society are still inhibiting progress. ‘The best winners in sport are teams, surely society should follow this model.’ Typical of this approach is the lasting legacy that the tournament will leave Rio de Janiero in the form of a ’football community legacy center’ in the Santa Cruz district on the outskirts of the city. The center will be used to tackle poverty in the area, but also in a more progressive role of working to eliminate social stigma and exclusion of young homeless people. As well as the project in Santa Cruz the Homeless World Cup have teamed up with Nike to create a solid legacy of 100 jobs through the creation of ‘Wig Kiosks’. These will be used to sell colourful wigs to football fans made from off-cuts and rejected articles of clothing from Nike factories that would normally be disposed of. This, argues Young, ‘is true legacy, longer lasting than a multi-million dollar stadium and far more productive.’

The tournament’s legacy goes beyond host countries and cities, and in the office next to Mel Young’s sat perched above the south stand of Hibernian’s Easter Road stadium sits David Duke, a man who has created his own legacy. David stands as a symbol for everything that the organisation looks to achieve. Describing the tournament as ‘the rope that allowed me to pull myself out of a very dark hole.’
Homeless in 2003 after the death of his father sent him on a downward spiral David got involved with a street soccer organisation in Glasgow. In 2004 David qualified for the Scotland team and played in the Gothenburg tournament which inspired him to get back into football and pursue SFA coaching qualifications. Remaining in the set up as a coach he eventually managed Scotland to glory in Copenhagen during 2007 and in the same week as winning the tournament also became a homeowner. However David’s story continues into the present day as he is now a social entrepreneur and the founder of Street Soccer Scotland.

This new social enterprise aims to use football as a diversion from anti-social behaviour and a trigger to energize people who are socially excluded. As well as this they are charged with the responsibility of selecting, coaching, and mentoring the Scotland Homeless World Cup squad each year. However the organisation’s biggest focus is personal development of players through four key areas; volunteering, education, coaching, and achieving SFA coaching badges. Through this strategy they have achieved the astounding figure of 40% of participants going into coaching or education. This approach is typified by David’s mini mission statement ‘it’s not just football, it’s community, our legacy is bringing those without hope back into community.’

It must be argued that one of the greatest legacies the whole street soccer movement around the world has inspired is the return of true and effective philanthropy to football. The key factor in this success is taking the onus away from players in an age where the cult of personality surrounding players has created a financially unstable model. The football is merely a background activity that begins to instigate social skills and although the focus is on changing the lives of players there is no particular concentration on any individual. Through Young‘s philosophical guidance the Homeless World Cup has developed at an astounding pace, and as is seen through David Duke the philosophy is infectious. This infectious spread of philosophy has even made Eric Cantona, one of the organisation‘s biggest backers’ musings begin to make sense. ‘Everybody needs to wake up in the morning with a goal. That is the main thing. The Homeless World Cup brings this opportunity – to go training to change your life.’ This spread of philosophy back into football is particularly healthy, but for society to improve on a wider scale Young’s ideas must proliferate within the public consciousness. Its time to start working as a team and considering things from the viewpoint of the people within society who are the most excluded. One particularly poignant consideration on this theme was given by David Duke to me when I was caught whining about the rain during one of Street Soccer Scotland’s drop in sessions will stay with me forever as an inspirational mantra. ‘You don’t just stop being homeless just it gets a bit rainy.’ Certainly food for thought in a time of nonchalance.

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