A ball can change the world.
This sentiment, which appears on the Street Soccer Canada website, certainly rings true for Joan Mathias, the Courtenay resident who was among thousands of players from dozens of countries competing at the 10th Homeless World Cup which wound up Sunday in Mexico City.
Joan is a member of Maple Pool United, a local squad that formed out of the Dawn to Dawn: Action on Homelessness Society street soccer program. Following the Western Canadian qualifier, officials from Street Soccer Canada selected her for the Canadian women’s team to compete in Mexico.
Their opponents included the host side which had lost to Brazil in the final of last year’s tournament in Paris. The Mexican women turned the tables this year by beating Brazil 6-2 in the final.
“They were easy on us,” Joan said, noting a Mexican reserve team helped other countries hampered by injuries and player shortages. “We had a wonderful Mexican goalkeeper for us. She was named goalie of the tournament.”
At 49, Joan was the eldest member of the Canadian women’s and men’s teams. The youngest was a 17-year-old from Halifax. Her teammates called her either Mama Joanie or Auntie Joanie.
Her roommate was “our little star Amanda,” who scored the most goals for Team Canada.
“We bonded because we didn’t know any of our teammates until we met on the airplane,” said Joan, one of four players on the women’s team, along with two substitutes from Mexico. “Like every other team we were hit by a lot of injuries.”
The Canadian men’s side had its challenges between the pipes — the goalie fractured a hand, then the replacement ‘keeper broke a shoulder.
Air quality, heat and altitude presented other challenges.
“It was a real test on our stamina. It was very hard to run and to breathe,” Joan said, recalling the turf was “on fire” on one especially hot day.
The high point of the tourney was when Joan scored a tying goal that sent the match into a penalty shootout, which Canada won.
“What a feeling,” she said.
Another high was beating Team USA.
“That was THE best,” Joan said laughing.
The low point? Sketchy Internet and no Tim Horton’s, but she noticed plenty of Starbucks.
After Joan’s team lost its first game 17-0, the referee known as Happy Harry — impressed she was still smiling after a lopsided loss — presented Joan with a whistle for her display of sportsmanship.
She was also presented with a beaded mariachi guitar at the end of the tournament for being an MVP, more in terms of attitude than ability. All participants receivedmedals.
Another honour was her selection as a flag bearer at the opening ceremony, though Joan wound up carrying the Canada sign because the flag was too heavy.
Team Canada members were outfitted with jerseys, shorts, indoor cleats and tracksuits. In the spirit of international soccer, Joan traded her top for a Scotland street soccer jersey.
“We were treated like royalty,” she said. “It didn’t matter what country, everyone loved Canada. We were fed beautifully by massive buffets at the Grand Hotel.”
Through Facebook, she can keep in touch with her newly acquired international friends, such as the Finnish and Welsh men’s teams that stayed at the same hotel.
“We were always there rooting for them and they rooted for us.”
A Dawn to Dawn client, Joan has worked at Home Depot, Willemar Grocery, the Superstore gas bar and at Light House Lamps and Lighting in Courtenay.
She is looking for employment but is limited due to chronic neck pain. She likes working with the public, be it retail or helping people with their disability.
“I’ve lived through it,” Joan said. “When I help people, it makes me happy. It empowers me, actually.”
She said the local street soccer program has changed her life — as has the experience of the Homeless World Cup.
“It’s changed my attitude,” Joan said. “The things I’ve seen and experienced. There’s no words to describe it. My heart is just — wow — I can’t explain it.”
She is grateful to the Comox Valley community for making her trip possible.
“The generosity and acknowledgments have been unbelievable, and very much appreciated,” Joan said.
Some of the action from Mexico has been posted at streetsoccercanada.org and Facebook.
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In street soccer, four-player teams compete on a turf field about 22 metres long surrounded by boards.
Nets are about the same height as those used in hockey but wider.
Mel Young of Scotland and Harald Schmied of Austria founded the Homeless World Cup organization in 2001. They were searching for an international language to unite homeless people around the world. They decided soccer could act as the common ground.
The inaugural tournament took place in 2003 in Graz, Austria.
According to the organization, more than 70 per cent of Homeless World Cup players changed their lives by beating addictions, moving into jobs, homes, training, education and by repairing relationships.