‘The feel of the game’ | On the streets, Charlotte participants experience football as sole force

Abouseyf Negadi (inset), 23, of Algeria, provided an impromptu Arabic lesson at the 2006 Homeless USA Cup in Charlotte. He represented the New York team that defeated Pennsylvania in the final.

Charlotte, North Carolina | Given the rigors of a night-shift job, Ron “Pop” Miller sometimes would sleep until the last possible moment before practices preceding the Homeless World Cup. Physical conditioning, fatigue and poor nutrition all posed obstacles for Miller’s participation in the fifth homeless tournament between Jul 29 and Aug 4 in Copenhagen.


Further, Miller found himself learning a new game that some teammates from Central America had been playing much of their lives. “I’m a newcomer to it,” said Miller in an interview as part of the Aug 21 podcast. “It took a lot of persistence and patience and really sticking out the practice, watching what the others are doing, even practicing in your off-time sometimes, even when you’re not with the team—just go out there, kick it around and try to get the feel of the game.” (See also Miller’s essay on the Copenhagen experience, “I Played in the Homeless World Cup,” Orato, Sept 5).

Giving homeless and formerly homeless men and women the feel of four-on-four street soccer has formed part of the program of life transformation at the Urban Ministry Center in Charlotte. Lawrence Cann, director of Community Works 945, employs the sport as another “point of contact” for marginalized people. The game offers a spiritual component that compares to taking up a paintbrush or nourishing a plant; arts and gardening constitute parallel pursuits in the Community Works triumverate.

“You can kind of invent your way in the game,” says Cann, a former Davidson College player who founded the Art Works Football Club, now called Street Soccer 945, in 2004. Rob Cann, Lawrence’s brother and a former player at East Carolina, coaches the team after having started as an intern in 2005.

Soccer for the Charlotte brothers and the participants has meted out large doses of humility and made patience a prerequisite. For nearly two years after its founding, the Art Works/Street Soccer club, playing in Charlotte-area indoor leagues, did not record a match victory (see “NL31: Victory!” Street Soccer 945, 31 Jul 06, for a report of the first win). Lawrence Cann’s diaries chronicle the comings and goings of players as they struggle with addictions and housing, intrasquad squabbling, spontaneous kickabouts and the passing on of soccer and life skills that helped build a team, despite a string of 45 defeats, that represented the United States at the Homeless World Cup in Edinburgh in 2005. The Canns’ connection with the team is such that Lawrence for a week drove with a player’s stepfather’s ashes in a small tin in his car.

Pablo Ruelas shows off the Charlotte team’s new uniforms before the 2006 Homeless USA Cup.

“We live to learn and we learned to live with each other,” wrote player Michael Schell following the 2005 event, at which the USA lost all its matches but found many other benefits to the international travel and mingling with a cross-cultural blend of the world’s homeless. Eight of the nine players found permanent homes after the tournament.

In 2006 in Cape Town, the United States took a mix of players following the inaugural Homeless USA Cup in Charlotte. The side finished 46th among 48 teams, but, again, the cultural learning continued: Michael Knight of Washington reported that a South African girl asked for his socks following one match, since she did not have any (Laura Thompson Osuri, “From Streets to Soccer Star,” Street Sense, Oct 06). “When I took off my socks and gave them to her, she gave me a big hug,” said Knight, 50. “What meant so much to her was something that I had taken for granted.”

In Copenhagen, the side had improved to the point that Lawrence Cann could protest harsh refereeing decisions that perhaps kept the U.S. team from doing better than a middle-of-the-pack finish. Nevertheless, the team defeated Argentina, Canada, India, Kyrgyzstan, Austria, Slovenia and Slovakia en route to finishing fourth in the event’s Ombold Trophy group. (Scotland won the overall first-place trophy, after teams were regrouped based on performances in earlier games.) U.S. Ambassador to Denmark James Cain attended at least one match, and the team wore uniforms that duplicated those of the senior American national team. Following through on its ethos of creating barrier-breaking interactions in its play and travel, the Americans helped a Danish lad repair his bike chain (see the Street Soccer 945 blog entry for Aug 2).

Captaining the team was Daniel Martinez of Honduras, who eight months before the tournament had been living in a shelter. Helped by positive reinforcement from soccer, Martinez found a permanent job, bought a car and then found that the biggest barrier to participation in Denmark was the labyrinthine nature of contacts required to obtain valid travel documents.

Confusion surrounding visa regulations has kept teams from participating in past tournaments. Host governments become nervous when learning of past criminal records of some participants, sometimes denying travel at the last minute. U.S. players were denied a special category of visa before entering Scotland in 2005, but they were able to enter as tourists. After the 2007 event, the Associated Press reported that a total of 23 players from Liberia, Cameroon, Burundi, Uganda and Afghanistan had failed to leave Denmark.

Lawrence Cann details the intricacies of Martinez’s situation:

He applied for his passport three months ahead of the trip. There was a strike in Honduras which delayed matters, and then we learned a week ago that even though Daniel presented a proper birth certificate and his expired passport, green card, and other supporting documents, the Honduran secretary of foreign relations wouldn’t issue his passport. Daniel never had a father growing up, so his mother changed his name to remove his father’s surname. Back then, in Honduras, everything was handwritten. When the system was computerized, the goverment failed to update his info, and the new birth-certificate number Daniel was using belonged to someone else in their system. After hours on the phone with the embassy and secretary of consular affairs in Honduras and with the help of some lawyers we were able to correct the situation at the last possible moment. We got the code to print Daniel’s passport the night before our departure. (“Arrival in Copenhagen,” Street Soccer 945, Jul 28)

Even then, Cann had to arrange for courier shipment of the passport to Newark Liberty International Airport. The document arrived two hours before the flight abroad.

A detail from the recently opened Art Park at the Urban Ministry Center in Charlotte. The multi-use facility serves as street-soccer pitch and amphitheater for community open-mic poetry readings. (www.communityworks945.org)

Homeless soccer programs have spread to other cities as the Charlotte group has worked to give structure and conceptual weight to its activities. It sponsored a conference preceding the 2007 US Cup with the stated aim of using soccer to create social change on a national level.

The 2008 US Cup will take place in Washington with the U.S. Soccer Foundation, National Coalition for the Homeless and Street Sense newspaper as sponsors. Lawrence Cann hopes to be able to reserve two spots for women on the U.S. team that travels to Melbourne for the Homeless World Cup 2008.

In the meantime, the Charlotte program continues as a collaborative idea that seeks to offer social interaction for everyone involved. The community aspect became clear in the conception and building of the Urban Ministry Center Art Park, directed by students in an “Art and Activism” class at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte. Recycled tires serve as benches at the Tryon Street facility. Lockers were donated to help meet storage needs for the center’s itinerant clients.

The park’s playing surface, featuring colorful spray-painted squares of art and poetry, demonstrates the flush of creativity inspired by the shared work. Scythe Fewell has transferred his poem “I Will Not Lose.” Beverly Cowan contributes “I Believe,” beginning, “I believe that change is possible …”

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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