Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland’s homeless footballers take on the world

Legend Gerry Armstrong gives teams a send-off to Mexico

Ruth Boyle and Matthew Gallagher from Street Soccer NI teams alongside Gerry Armstrong at a farewell reception ahead of their trip to Mexico
Ruth Boyle and Matthew Gallagher from Street Soccer NI teams alongside Gerry Armstrong at a farewell reception ahead of their trip to Mexico
Brian Lindsay

By James Gant

Northern Ireland's Homeless World Cup squads were given a send-off by footballing legend Gerry Armstrong yesterday ahead of their tournament in Mexico next week.

The former Northern Ireland striker (64), who is a Street Soccer ambassador, joined around 40 guests at the National Stadium to wish the 18 men and women good luck before they fly to Mexico City on Sunday.

Armstrong, known for scoring the winner against Spain in the 1982 World Cup, said: "A lot of these people find it tough on the streets and anything I feel we can do we have to do. I've told as many people as I know and they've watched the momentum grow and I'm really pleased the way it's growing."

He was asked two-and-a-half years ago to get involved and "thought it was a fantastic idea".

"It's about them finding out more about themselves and becoming better people and standing out and that they don't have to live on the streets. There are opportunities and alternatives and we're giving them an alternative with good support," he added.

This year's Homeless World Cup will see 500 players from 47 countries battle it out from November 13 to 18 in the historic Zocalo square in Mexico City. Each team will play 13, 14-minute matches where the ball does not go out of play.

It is expected the tournament will see crowds of more than 80,000 with millions watching online.

There are 47 men's squads who compete for six trophies and 16 women's teams play for two trophies. They can only play in one tournament. It is a four-a-side game on a 16 x 22-metre synthetic turf pitch - with three outfield players, one goalkeeper and four substitutes.

Northern Ireland's men's team finished 12th last year in Oslo and the women finished 16th.

The current champions are Brazil who have won the tournament three times since it began in 2003. Mexico have won it twice.

Justin McMinn, manager and co-founder of Street Soccer NI, said: "This trip is a once in a lifetime opportunity for all the players and a chance to represent your country in an amazing country like Mexico.

"Over the last five years we have witnessed the impact this event has on the players with many of them breaking out of homelessness and unemployment on their return. They will come back full of confidence and motivation to make positive changes in their lives.

"Some of the players are new to football and just wanted to give it a try and obviously quite a few of them have addictions as well. They're smoking and drinking a lot, their health isn't necessarily in the best shape, so it is tough getting them ready but you keep pushing them. Thankfully they're all committed and kept attending."

Kathryn Hill, director of active communities division at the Department for Communities, added: "The department is delighted to support Street Soccer NI and the teams travelling to compete and represent Northern Ireland at the Homeless World Cup in Mexico City.

"This experience, together with an intensive wraparound support service, represents a once in a lifetime opportunity for these players to transform their lives. This project started with 18 individuals and now they are one team. I congratulate everyone on being selected and I wish them every success in Mexico and for their futures."

Keith Gibson, Football For All Manager at the Irish Football Association who help fund the team with the Department for Communities, the Housing Executive and East Belfast Mission, has been involved with the project from the start.

He said: "It's all about changing lives, it's not really about winning football matches in this tournament, despite that being nice. We're always looking to extend (the project). We have extended widely in the last year to take in more of Belfast - it used to just be one in Belfast and one in Derry but yes if there are other opportunities to work with other hostels and homeless charities, we're always looking to do that."

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‘I’ve had a rocky life but I love football’

Ruth Boyle (36) got into difficulty when a former landlord chose to sell the house she was renting - which left her with no place to go.

She is on a month-to-month rolling contract with her current landlord, but has plans to get a permanent house in Belfast when she returns from Mexico.

She even joked to the Housing Executive team present about giving her a discount.

Ms Boyle, the women's team captain, likes to score goals herself but tends to play in defence or goal for the homeless team as she is strong.

She said: "I love football it's always been my go to, I love it. When I was growing up I went to play football and to a club but they would say you can't play because you're a wee girl and that hurt, that hurt me a lot, but it didn't stop me from playing.

"And that's where I want to be. I want to bring football to people."

She said: "Even though I've had a rocky life, the majority of people out there have as it's Northern Ireland.

"It's one of the poorest places to be."

But her long term goal is clear.

"I want to coach, I want to teach people what I've learnt and I want to show other people that," she said.

'It was game over for me'

Brian Lyndsay (23) was living the high life working hard (and partying harder) in Ibiza.

But his life changed dramatically when his passport, wallet and suitcase were stolen from his room, leaving him forced to move back to Belfast as he could not work undocumented.

He said: "When I was out there in Ibiza I was living on cloud nine and from one day to the next that was it. But then it was just game over for me.

"So I had to move back and I came with nothing. I couldn't get benefits, couldn't have a hostel, couldn't live anywhere. I'm not in contact with my family so it was really hard for me.

"I have never felt like that where everything and everyone just turned their backs on me because once one thing goes wrong, it's like a snowball effect and it's hard to get back on track."

But he saw an advert for Street Soccer and found football took his mind off his problems as well as helped him pull his life back together. "I'm not Protestant or Catholic or anything. Football's my religion," he said.

The centre midfielder and Arsenal fan now has a passport, benefits and lives in a hostel.

Looking to the future, he added: "By trade I'm a barman, so coming up to Christmas it should be easy for me to get a job.

"So straight back into work and then hopefully get housed and stuff like that and then just follow on with the football."

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