Scoring a goal for the homeless

Mark had been in care since infancy, but representing Ireland in the Homeless World Cup has helped him find a sense of self-worth, writes Shamim Malekmian.

The Glen resource centre, where games are played in the Cork Homeless Street League.

Until he started playing soccer, Mark always felt like an outcast on his own streets.

Now with the high possibility of representing Ireland in the Homeless World Cup, the young man says that he has found a sense of self-worth again.

“Even though it’s the Irish Homeless Team, still the chance to represent Ireland makes me feel so proud,” says Mark with a smile on his face.

Mark found himself in foster care as a six-month-old baby; the stigma of being a foster child led to him developing anger issues and into homelessness. However, a new chapter in his life began upon meeting Paul Carroll.

Carroll, the photographer behind the book Gaelic Fields (the fruit of his seven-year travels across Ireland to photograph Gaelic club games and fields), is not only passionate about immortalizing the sports fields of Ireland but is also interested in discovering talented underprivileged young players to play on them.

Paul Carroll.

Before becoming the coordinator of Cork’s Homeless Street League, Carroll used to gather homeless boys from Cork Foyer every week to play soccer. Mark was one of those boys.

For years Cork Homeless Street League was run and coordinated by the community gardaí. The retirement of the guards involved in the programme put a temporary end to the scheme. “One year no tournament was held, so the Irish Street League in Dublin started to look for a new coordinator in Cork.

“The former organisers recommended me because I held my own weekly events with Cork Foyer,” says Carroll.

With his new position came the power to provide the opportunity of a lifetime for the young talented players in his old group: playing in the National Homeless Team.

Carroll saw an excellent goalkeeper in Mark and asked him to go to Limerick with the rest of Cork’s homeless team to participate in his first Street League tournament. Now moving between Dublin and Cork every week for the pre-World Cup trials he has a high chance of representing Ireland in the Homeless World Cup in Oslo which runs from August 29 to September 5.

Homelessness, coming from a Traveller background or being in a drug and alcohol dependency rehabilitation programme are criteria for entering in local street leagues, and having the chance of being selected to represent Ireland in the Homeless World Cup. The Irish Street League also tries to involve refugees and asylum seekers in the programme.

Carroll says he has witnessed players with various issues avail of the programme in his few years of being involved in the Irish Street League.

Apart from giving the players self-esteem, he says it helps disadvantaged individuals with social anxiety as it provides an opportunity for them to get used to being in large groups of people. Mark feels incredibly thankful towards Carroll: “Paul pushes you to do what you’re good at, if it weren’t for him I would’ve been stuck in my room 24/7 doing nothing.”

Scottish entrepreneur Mel Young and Austrian humanitarian and journalist Harald Schmied established the Homeless World Cup in 2003 and organised its very first event in Austria the same year.

Ireland has participated in the event since the Homeless World Cup inaugural games in 2003.

The Irish Street League was officially founded the following year and ran a pilot programme in Dublin with the support of Dublin City Council.

Following its success, the programme began to expand to other areas of the country.

Today, over 300 players from local Street Leagues come together each year to compete in the All-Ireland Tournament: an important event which identifies players who end up representing Ireland in the World Cup.

Mark says he still experiences discrimination every time someone recognises him as a resident of Cork Foyer, the transitional housing and training centre for young homeless individuals that has sheltered him for the past few months.

He turns serious as he recollects being embarrassed in front of a group of friends when a waiter at a local restaurant refused to serve him a drink.

The waiter told him he knew that he was one of the boys from the Cork Foyer and did not want to attend to him.

“But going to Oslo with the Irish team builds up your confidence sky-high,” he says.

Mark’s ultimate dream is to become a professional goalkeeper, beyond the homeless team.

Besides sports, he is interested in psychology.

With the help of the government, he was enrolled in Cork’s College of Commerce last year but overwhelmed with his personal problems dropped out of the course. He is determined to go back to college next year and get his degree.

“I had an experience working with people with disability and older people since then, I decided that I wanted to become a psychologist or a social worker,” he says.

But right now his only purpose is making it to Oslo with the Irish squad: a dream that is only a few steps away from realisation.


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