The power of soccer

8 August 2011

Written by: GIULIO DI GIORGIO

Take one motley group of soccer players, all of whom have battled the odds for most of their lives, and fit them out with soccer jerseys. These are the Australian Street Socceroos.

In 2005, the Street Socceroos, led by coach George Halkias, embarked on their greatest adventure yet when they took part in their first international soccer tournament, the Homeless World Cup in Scotland.

The Street Socceroos were out to perform at their best on the world stage. For the players, however, this wasn’t just a sporting event – the tournament had a greater significance.

This group of disadvantaged individuals – experiencing homelessness,  mental illness or the ravaging cycle of substance abuse – were out to triumph over adversity and resurrect their individual lives.

In their inaugural appearance, the Street Socceroos reached the quarter-final against the home team, Scotland. National coach George Halkias relives some of his fondest memories of the match.

‘It was a Friday afternoon and the atmosphere was electric at the packed 3,000-seat arena. Scotland won the game with literally the last kick and the crowd erupted,’ Halkias recalls.

‘The teams embraced and the crowd just applauded and cheered. There was great comradery between the two groups and our players had tried their best.’

Each year, more than 60 teams from around the world compete at the Homeless World Cup.

Halkias will once again lead the Street Socceroos at this year’s tournament in Paris from August 21 to 28 – his sixth campaign in charge of the national squad.

Coach Halkias works for The Big Issue Australia, an independent organisation which helps the disadvantaged earn an income. As part of his role, Halkias oversees the Street Soccer Program.

Street Soccer is designed to help improve the physical and psychological well-being of the disadvantaged.

‘Players hear about the program through accessing services, including crisis shelters, refuges, drug rehabs, mental health services and word of mouth,’ Halkias says.

Street Soccer, which kicked off in Melbourne in 2004, continues to grow rapidly across the country. The program now operates in over 30 sites across Australia, from capital cities to regional centres and in indigenous communities.

Street Soccer teams train once a week, all year round.

‘[Training consists of] two hour sessions of fun football and exercise, special guests, team building opportunities and other activities that help the players develop and grow as individuals, not just [as] footballers,’ says Halkias.

Each year, selectors nominate players for the Street Socceroos national team, which competes at the Homeless World Cup.  The team consists of players with a vision for a brighter future, all of whom are committed to overcoming their personal struggles.

The Homeless World Cup format can be compared to the indoor game, now widely known as futsal. This tournament brings together players from Street Soccer programs worldwide. It’s an adapted form of soccer: fast paced and physically gruelling, with some thrilling end-to-end action.

The game is split into two halves of seven minutes each. Each team consists of eight players in total – both males and females aged over 16 – with a maximum of four players per team on the court.

When asked how he recruits the team, Halkias jokingly says: ‘Probably different to (Socceroos coach) Holger Osieck. We don’t have the resources and million dollar contracts that his players have.’

In 2008, The Big Issue hosted the Homeless World Cup at Melbourne’s Federation Square. The week-long event saw more than 50 teams from across the globe, including more than 100,000 spectators, converge on the city centre.

‘Sharing the experience with family and friends here in Melbourne was special… I was so proud of the way that the whole city and country got behind the event and the team, not to mention 1,000-odd volunteers,’ Halkias remembers.

‘I’ll never forget the full house on finals day, and the Afghan fans celebrating when their team had won. Federation Square was such an amazing venue.’

Halkias has also assumed a father figure role within the squad. Apart from coaching, he’s also a friend, mentor and confidant to the players.

‘The players are looking for a positive role model and a person that can support, encourage and motivate them,’ he says. ‘I guess we all need that sort of person in our lives.

‘They know I have their best interest at heart and want to help them help themselves. They trust me and know I won’t judge them; that’s very important in such a relationship.’

When asked about some of his most treasured coaching highlights and memories, Halkias reflects and says: ‘There are so many.’

‘I love playing the Greek team; being of Greek heritage and having helped my mate, Chris, set up a team in Athens.

‘When we played each other in Copenhagen in 2007, we sat on the same coaches bench and watched proudly. Greece won, but all the players were dancing [the] Zorba afterwards,’ he laughs.

Coaching the squad, Halkias explains, has changed his approach to life, too.

‘My life has been enriched by the experience. I have such a better perspective on life. I know there are people doing it way tougher than me.

‘I appreciate my good health and opportunities life has given me. The little things don’t worry me as much; no point worrying about interest rates,’ Halkias says, light-heartedly.

But he saves his fondest remarks for his players: ‘I am inspired by all of them. Just for getting out there and having a go – not to mention some who make amazing lifestyle changes and grow as well-rounded people.’

Halkias considers himself fortunate to have formed many lasting friendships in challenging times.

‘I see players who joined the program back in 2005 working, studying and doing well, and I think, “Great, that’s what’s it’s about”,’ Halkias says.

‘Just to see the change in people’s demeanour and outlook on life … makes it worthwhile, and you know the program is working.’

The Street Soccer Program encapsulates the positive power of soccer worldwide.

‘This program is about having fun.  Come and have a go,’ Halkias concludes.

‘You’ll make yourself some great new friends and develop a great new network.’

Giulio Di Giorgio is a Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University and is part of upstart‘s editorial team. You can follow him on Twitter: @gdigiorgio