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

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.

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