Trophy glory just the tip of the iceberg for Northern Ireland winners
Northern Ireland's Homeless World Cup team made the headlines last week when they won Action Total Cup in Santiago on Sunday.
However, manager Justin McMinn believes his squad of eight players, who all come from socially deprived backgrounds, won much more than trophy while in Chile. He believes they enjoyed an experience that could help them reshape their lives.
“Our aim was to improve on last year's performance and we did that so I'm delighted. The guys were heartbroken when they went out of the main tournament but we told them there was still another trophy to play for and they got themselves prepared and went out and won that trophy. It's a fantastic achievement for a country our size.
“But there is more to the Homeless World Cup than winning matches. It's about watching these players grow as individuals. It was amazing to watch them gel as a group and solve problems together. There was one occasion when there was a problem within the camp, but rather than relying on the staff to sort it out, they called a team meeting and discussed the issue themselves. They took ownership of the problem and that's a really big thing for these guys.
“This tournament provides structure and discipline. It helps the players with their mental health and their self-esteem. You need to remember that most of these guys haven't left the country before or even been on a plane.
“Now they're talking about getting involved in education or trying to find employment. They're also interested in getting involved in football coaching. Last year's captain Stephen Weldon went to Chile as a coach this year, so anything is possible. This tournament can be a life-changing event. I'm optimistic about these guys' futures.”
The tournament took place in the Chilean capital Santiago, with the home side eventually winning the main prize by defeating Bosnia in the final. The trophy Northern Ireland won was a cup for sides who were knocked out at the group stage. Each country has a squad of eight players, with only four players on the field at any given time.
While Northern Ireland showed their sporting prowess on the court, they also demonstrated good sportsmanship.
McMinn explained: “I think our most memorable performance came against England in the quarter-finals. We were 4-0 down but somehow managed to win 9-8.
“But one of greatest achievements actually came in the groups against Canada. I don't think the Canadians had played much football before and they had been on the wrong end of a few big scores.
“Their staff approached us and explained that their players were really down and they were concerned for them. They asked us to take it easy on them because they were worried what another big defeat might do to their self-esteem.
“Our guys took that on board and showed Canada respect. We played our goalkeeper outfield and an outfield player in goals, to even it up a little. At one point Canada had a player sent off. Our lads begged the referee to keep him on, but the ref was adamant. So to keep things fair we subbed off a player so both teams only had three men. We still won the match but we didn't embarrass Canada and they were delighted with our sportsmanship. Making friends and show that sort of compassion is part of the journey.”
The Northern Ireland Homeless World Cup squad are made up of players who compete in the Street League. The Street League is a weekly competition for footballers with social issues, held in both Belfast and Londonderry. Street League organiser Justin McMinn hopes this success will lift the profile of the domestic competition.
“Sometimes I feel the Street League goes unnoticed. Really, hardly anyone has heard of it. Hopefully our success at the Homeless World Cup will change that. We've been mentioned on the radio and in newspapers over the last week, so hopefully people will start to pay attention.
“We've already seen more people join the Street League, because they've heard about the Homeless World Cup and they would like to get involved. That can only be a positive thing.”
While the Homeless World Cup has been running for over a decade, this is only the second time Northern Ireland have entered. Justin is hoping to go one step further next year and enter a women's team.
He explained: “Our dream for next year is to take a women's team for the first time. It was difficult to raise the money to take even one team to Chile, but next year's event is in Amsterdam so it's the perfect year for us to introduce a women's team. Obviously we will still need funding and sponsorship, so we will be working towards that goal.
“This year we were supported by Belfast City Council, Northern Ireland Housing Executive, East Belfast Mission, Irish Football Association, DePaul, Extern, Belfast Community Sports Development Network, Community Foundation Northern Ireland, Ormeau Enterprises and Oaklee-Trinity. We would like to thank them all for their time and investment. Without their help we simply wouldn't have been able to travel to Chile.”
Let's hope this year's success just the start of the adventure for the Northern Ireland team and the Street League.
Belfast Telegraph Digital