Homeless Get Emotional Lift Via Teamwork at Homeless World Cup Soccer Tournament

Brothers Lawrence and Rob Cann have seemingly found an effective, albeit unusual, way to cure homelessness: play soccer.

Six months of drilling teamwork and a sense of self-worth into a group of homeless men turned soccer players have pushed the pair of co-creators into the fifth annual, 48-team Homeless World Cup Soccer Tournament, held at Town Hall Square in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The program, created at the Urban Ministry Center in Charlotte, N.C., has done precisely what it was created to do. It has successfully blended guidance with detailed teachings to reach out and transform previously undisciplined men into citizens heading in the right direction.

The program is since expanded into several other cities nationwide, including New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Austin, TX. And it’s looking to expand even more.

“We knew going in that playing soccer would motivate these guys,” Rob, the team’s 24-year-old head coach, said. “But we kind of underestimated its impact. Some of these have gotten jobs and found places to live since joining the team.”

Many of the players on the team, including standouts Ronnie “Pop” Miller and Daniel Martinez, agree.

“I have a job now, a safe place to stay,” said Miller, who was homeless for a year before playing street soccer. “I’m not a great player, but this game has taught me that you have to remain determined and keep going no matter what.”

“Helping others who are in the situation I was in makes me feel more human,” Martinez, 24, told the Charlotte Observer in a July 20, 2007 article. “I had obstacles, but through street soccer I know I’m not alone.”

According to Ron, six of the eight players have non-American roots, stemming from Panama to Costa Rica. Five are from the Charlotte area and only two have previous soccer experience.

The youngest member of the team is 17, the Charlotte Observer reported. The oldest is 37.

Ron stated that the team was not always a well-equipped, supportive group.

“Many of the guys came in with anger management issues,” he said. “Some had previously suffered physical abuse, other mental abuse. Many lost their jobs and I think they had unresolved tension that playing soccer helped get out.”

The type of soccer the team plays is unconventional. Its “street soccer,” as Lawrence referred to it as. The games are played four players each, including a goalie, on asphalt or concrete with hockey-like boards and small goals. Each game last 14 minutes, with two seven-minute halves.

This version of the game also requires more strategy to win, said Rob. The scores are higher in comparison to traditional soccer games, averaging about 16 goals a game, he added.

Rob and Lawrence have led two other national teams overseas to World Cups in 2005 and 2006. Neither team did particularly well, but this year hopes to be different. As of Tuesday, the team was 1-2. They defeated Slovakia but lost to Kazakhstan and Ireland.

“We have seen some stiff competition out here,” said Miller. “Some of the teams are very good, some even have players who have played soccer all their lives, but we’re playing hard and staying strong.

While overseas, the team has given the players a place to stay inside a newly constructed hostel, but it does not supply its players with a place to stay while in the United States. According to Rob, some stay in shelters in the United States while others stay in hotels or even camp out on the streets.

“Most of us are off the street or soon to be off the streets,” said Miller. “Being a part of this team has been a good part of our lives.”