by James Pennington
A floating pontoon in Sydney’s Darling Harbour may seem an odd venue for a football tournament but then, the Street Football Festival is no ordinary competition.
Held over 10 days in April, the Festival saw 300 five-a-side matches with 900 players taking part in youth, corporate and celebrity matches, culminating in the National Street Soccer Championships, where teams of homeless and disadvantaged men and women from every state battled it out in front of large crowds at Cockle Bay.
The Championships, played over two days, were tightly contested with South Australia narrowly beating Victoria in the final match. State teams were organised via the Community Street Soccer Program, which has engaged over 4,000 participants with weekly training and mentoring sessions at 30 centres across Australia since its foundation in 2007.
Denis Smith, a mentor at the King George V Recreation Centre in The Rocks, says the program, funded by the Federal Government and The Big Issue magazine, makes an important difference to disadvantaged people’s lives.
“No matter what trouble these people have, for a couple of hours here they can relax and play the game for the fun of it – mentally, giving them a chance to take the pressure off. It definitely works,” he says.
While the South Australians triumphed at the Championships, the old saying that “sport was the real winner” seems entirely appropriate. Throughout the tournament spectators saw goal keepers high-fiving opponents, guards of honour for the winning side and barely a foul in two days’ play. For Denis Smith, that sportsmanship is the most pleasing aspect of the Festival.
“The best thing is that it’s spontaneous. It’s not a coach saying, ‘go on you guys, get out there and shake hands’ or anything like that. If someone gets tripped over, straight away they’re helped up with a pat on the back,” he says.
Craig Foster, former Socceroo and football analyst on SBS Television and supporter of the Festival, says the National Championships are what football should be about.
“We all love the Socceroos, we love the A-League, we love football,” he says. “But this Festival really gets to the heart of the game, and this is where I enjoy spending my time the most. At many levels of the professional game it’s about the money, the fame, the titles, the egos, all of that. But this is really raw, and people with immense life challenges have made the extremely tough choice to try and change their life take centre stage. I can’t have enough respect for them.”
As a collaborative team sport, football, more than any others, provides a simple and accessible pathway for people with troubled backgrounds to start rebuilding their lives.
“Cooperation is the essence of football and participants understand it’s a team environment. Street Soccer is not a handout program, it’s very structured, it looks for personal commitment to change from its participants. And that’s why the success rate from the Community Soccer Program is so outstanding,” Craig Foster says.
While exact numbers are unknown, he and Denis estimate that around 75 per cent of participants have used the program as a springboard to making positive changes to their lives.
Success stories abound. Roy John, 49, was unemployed and living in a hostel in Parramatta when he joined a local Street Soccer Program last year. He played in the NSW state team in 2011, and then went on to represent Australia at the Homeless World Cup in Paris. He has since found full-time work and a place to live.
“I was in a pretty low place when I was homeless and unemployed. Those Thursday afternoons playing soccer gave me confidence, and I was able to speak to people, where previously had I found it difficult to communicate with others at that stage. The coaches in the program are always upbeat and positive, and that’s a great thing,” he says.
Adam Connell, 36, started playing football 18 months ago after living on the streets for a year. He said the program gave him a chance to verbalise his problems within a friendly environment.
“The support is awesome. There’s always someone to talk to if you have any problems, or any issues, and they will do what they can to help you out. It stops you dwelling on your problems as well. Look, those problems are always going to be there but coming and playing, it cheers you up,” he says.
Back at the Street Football Festival Antony, 21, another NSW player, was not overawed by the occasion.
“Yeah, the National Championships is a big thing, but really it’s about having fun, meeting new people and doing the best you can, and enjoying yourself while you do it,” he says.