Maple Pool United is hoping to send its fourth player in as many seasons to the Homeless World Cup of Soccer — a network of international organizations that use the sport to improve the lives of homeless and marginalized people. The 13th annual tournament takes place in Amsterdam in September.
Joan Mathias represented Canada at the 2012 tournament in Mexico, Heath Young competed at the 2013 event in Poland and Christine Watson traveled to Chile for last year’s tournament. This year’s candidate is Max Porcher.
“It’s a lot of fun,” 16-year-old Max said of the smaller version of the sport.
“I played (with my) high school (team). It’s harder to score goals. This is a faster-paced game.”
Maple Pool coach/co-ordinator Grant Shilling started the local street soccer program by recruiting players from the soup kitchen that operates daily at St. George’s United Church in Courtenay.
The program — an initiative of the Dawn to Dawn Action on Homelessness Society — operates at Maple Pool Campground in Courtenay. It enables marginalized individuals to exercise, socialize and compete in a fun environment. The sport involves four-person teams that play on a field about 22 metres long with hockey-size nets. Officials from Street Soccer Canada name players to the national men’s and women’s teams that compete at the Homeless World Cup. The event caters to all footballing abilities, meaning each team plays for a trophy.
Maple Pool member Martin Cook shared a story about his mother’s hometown of Chester-le-Street in England that exemplifies the origins of street soccer.
“On one day a year — it was a special day — they’d board up all the shop windows,” Cook said. “Basically it was east versus west. The idea was to get the ball in the other guy’s area. It was a mass soccer game, no holds barred. It was kind of a game and a riot at the same time.”
Shilling refers to Maple Pool United as “the little team that could.” In just its second season, the club hosted the Western Canadian qualifier at Lewis Park. Goalie James Souter earned the team’s MVP jersey, as nominated by his teammates.
“It means a lot to me,” said Souter, 46, a Maple Pool resident. “Just come out and have fun and socialize. Burn some energy off.”
Souter is one of five MPU members who will play at a 12-team tournament in Hamilton, Ont. in July — the same time Toronto hosts the Pan Am Games. From there, selections will be made for the national squads.
“Soccer did start with humble origins, whether it’s Pelé playing in the slums of Brazil or Georgie Best playing in the streets of North Ireland,” Shilling said. “Bringing street soccer to the Pan Am Games is an opportunity for those with less, the marginalized, to excel at something like their predecessors did. For me, though, as an outreach worker, it is more than just going to the street soccer World Cup or the Pan Am Games. It’s a form of outreach, and it’s the most fun form of outreach. People come here, they’re relaxed, we can talk about the struggles they’re facing. Ultimately, it’s an excuse to get together, have some fun, and start to problem solve and move forward in people’s lives.”
Street Soccer Canada founder Paul Gregory credits Shilling for using a variety of sports to include people, be it surfing, skateboarding or soccer.
“He’s one of those guys who immediately understands what you’re trying to do,” Gregory said from Toronto.
An advocate for the homeless, Gregory started Street Soccer Canada by forming a team largely from Toronto for the 2004 Homeless World Cup. The organization now comprises more than 20 soccer programs in a dozen cities, including Courtenay.
“It’s benefited me personally,” he said. “We have a bunch of guys that have been touched by soccer, and now they’re peer mentors.”
He notes that some street soccer participants who have never ventured beyond the borders of their town or province have a chance to make a national team and set foot on foreign soil.
“For me that’s a big component, to open somebody’s eyes to those opportunities.”
But Gregory says the real work happens at the grassroots.
“Every champion in each city across Canada is doing amazing work. That’s the nuts and bolts work where they’re creating those communities around a sense of belonging and a sense of something bigger. That’s the amazing piece. The Homeless World Cup is a small part of what we do.”
Maple Pool United hosts a fundraising car wash Saturday, June 27 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Finneron Hyundai, 250 Old Island Hwy.
Anyone wishing to help the program can make out cheques to Dawn to Dawn, or contact Shilling at (250) 218-3136. The website is dawntodawn.org.