A Blitzkrieg of Soccer

The Homeless World Cup brings together impoverished players from around the globe.

Near the conclusion of Dave Bidini’s brisk, earnest and wanting book Home and Away: In Search of Dreams at the Homeless World Cup of Soccer, readers learn that the final game of the 2008 Homeless World Cup was played between Afghanistan and Russia. And, nearly three decades after the Soviet invasion that their country is still reeling from, the Afghans won. You want to hear more. What was it like for the Afghans to play—and win—against the Russians, representatives of those who had destroyed their own country? What was it like for them to realize that mighty Russia also had people who fell through society’s cracks and ended up—via a completely different route—in the same place they did? Was there any connection between the Russians and the Afghans—does sport bring the world’s street people together—or did old hostilities stand in the way?

The questions lie unanswered. Home and Away is a fascinating endeavour, but as Bidini dances his way through short chapters about the teams and players whom the Canadian side encounters on the way to an early loss in the first playoff round of the 2008 Homeless World Cup, you cannot help but think he covered the wrong team.

There is the ghost of a beautiful book here, but Bidini keeps trying to corral it into the story he sets out to tell: that of Homeless Team Canada. And while the four Canadian players and two coaches/handlers who travel to Australia are an interesting enough bunch—particularly Krystal Bell, an 18-year-old Toronto runaway whose scoring touch comes heartbreakingly close to landing her a spot on a real Dutch soccer team—I found myself wishing Bidini had instead followed the Afghan team’s journey from refugee camps to the pinnacle of street soccer. Or one of half a dozen other incredible stories that flash by too fast as Bidini sticks to a doggedly chronological telling of Canada’s tournament.

Football, as most of the world calls the sport, is indeed one of the few things that has the power to thrill and unite people all over the planet. As Home and Away illustrates, the simplicity of the game—all you need is a ball—makes it accessible to even those who have fallen to the bottom of some of the most destroyed societies on Earth. Without actively seeking it out, I have wound up playing spontaneous games in the townships of South Africa, the refugee camps of the West Bank and a school in Baghdad shortly after the American invasion of Iraq. The Beautiful Game, bringing simple joy to places where it is otherwise hard to find. Bidini’s heartfelt joy at discovering that there was something called the Homeless World Cup is plain. First held as an 18-country tournament in Graz, Austria, in 2003, it had grown to a 56-country affair by the time Melbourne was hosting five years later. In an effort to spread the experience and opportunity around, players are only allowed to represent their country once, making the outcome of the tournament wildly unpredictable from one year to the next. Scotland, Kenya and Afghanistan were considered among the teams to beat in 2008, and more traditional soccer powerhouses like Sweden thought to be the pushovers.

Team Canada, another one of the weaklings, is a shoestring operation with a $15,000 budget (more than half of which goes to plane tickets to get the players and coaches to Australia) that comes primarily from private donations. But while Bidini affectionately covers the coaches’ struggle to put a team on the field and keep it there, the story suffers in comparison with those of the other squads we are so fleetingly introduced to.

In five paragraphs, we learn that members of the Zimbabwean team had to overcome being chased from one impromptu settlement to another as the “fires of rage” swept through the country and Robert Mugabe’s social economic policies plunged Zimbabwe into disaster. We later discover that the entire Zimbabwean team defected to Australia rather than return to their country at the end of the HWC. As with the Afghans, you are left wanting to hear more.

Similarly, we learn that three players on the pitiful Cambodian team “were born in the dumps of Phnom Penh and still live there.” In one information-packed paragraph, Bidini writes about how AIDS and glue sniffing haunt Cambodia’s homeless, but he soon drops the Cambodians and we never hear another word about them. The homeless of India, Sierra Leone, the Philippines and a blur of African and European sides—each player and team representing very different and complex social problems—all get the same blitzkrieg treatment. There is an all-female Cameroonian side that the reader is told of but never introduced to.

Bidini writes from the heart, but as he whips around the world and flicks at seemingly all of its ills in just 174 pages, you do not even feel like you get to know Homeless Team Canada’s players— Billy, Krystal, Jerry and Juventus—that well. Part of that can be blamed on cagey interviewees who are occasionally reluctant to talk (and a team that constantly changes in character, borrowing players and goaltenders from the homeless community in host Australia in order to field a full squad). Bidini is also content to take the Canadian players at their word about how and why they ended up on the streets. Hearing from some of their friends and relatives would help colour the players in. But there also simply is not the space—between the game stories and the snapshots of homelessness in different corners of the world—to fully explore even the small Canadian squad and how they ended up as Canada’s representatives at the Homeless World Cup.

Bidini has a sports reporter’s soul and a songwriter’s knack for saying a lot with a few words. He is at his finest when describing the actual games, deftly capturing the frantic action created by the tournament’s four-on-four style, and how the players’ issues naturally spilled over onto the field. There are also touching moments of sportsmanship, particularly when the Canadian side lets up against a Cambodian side that the players could see had suffered more defeat than even they could understand.

The book’s frenetic pace comes across as intentional—Bidini never lays it out in so many words (although he writes early in the book of his “longstanding belief in the magic of play and the redemptive properties of sport”), but you suspect that in jumping about so quickly the reader is supposed to see the commonalities in the homeless experience all over the world. But the characters are not given enough of an exploration for those links to become clear. Instead, it is a wild ride through dozens of sketches of people who seemingly have little in common besides the fact that they ended up in the same soccer tournament in Australia.

In the last pages, Bidini mentions that he travelled again with Team Canada to the 2009 Homeless World Cup in Milan. It is never explained why. I found myself wondering whether Bidini felt that he had more work to do to finish telling the tale of the Homeless World Cup.

It is a rare book that suffers from being too short, but Home and Away is one. It is an incredible story half-told.