Monday, July 21, 2008

Day Sydney's homeless played a blinder, by Arjun Ramachandran - The Sydney Morning Herald - 21st July 2008

Spurred by NSW's capitulation in this year's State of Origin, eight homeless New South Welshman took it upon themselves to restore the state's pride, prevailing in yesterday's Street Soccer National Championships grand final in Melbourne.

Things had looked dire when the team, comprising homeless and marginalised people, conceded an early goal to a strong Victorian side being cheered on by a parochial home crowd.

But it was a minor blip.

"We were up against it - they scored the first goal - but after that I don't think we were headed," coach Robert Neligan said.

The team eventually won 8-5, and its eight members returned to Sydney last night boasting the championship trophy and their individual medals.

They were expected to share the glory with the extended squad of 25 at training at Moore Park this afternoon.

"The objective was to go down there just to have a good time, and maybe win a few games," Mr Neligan said. "We didn't expect to win because we've only been going for a few months, whereas Victoria had two teams, and have been going for a few years."

The championship is part of a street soccer program for the homeless and marginalised, run by street magazine The Big Issue.

Despite the intense on-field battles, the homeless from each of the states had exhibited a special bond, said Mr Neligan, who has worked with the homeless for many years with Wesley Mission.

"There's the ability to find empathy for each other, they click ... there's a handshake and a bit of a cuddle, an automatic bonding," he said.

"But there were no prisoners on the field."

Captained by Alex Marshall, the NSW side lost just one match for the entire tournament, against South Australia.

A large part its success was due to an "absolutely dynamic" player, Cowen Slaughter, who won player of the tournament.

"He's just sharp, can shoot left and right foot, an absolutely exciting soccer player. There's no doubt he'll be in the Australian team [for the Homeless World Cup in December]."

Mr Neligan was reluctant to single out players, insisting the championship triumph was a team effort.

"Some of those guys absolutely lifted themselves, people who I didn't expect to play so well.

"We were in camp for two days on the peninsula, just bonding for two days ... all that helps.

"Those guys will look at this in 10 years down the track and think 'I played in that.'

"I played soccer for many years and even guys you played with for just one year, you knew you were always going to be mates - I'm sure this will happen with these guys.

"Let's hope this changes their life. These guys are real street people, they've got genuine problems and had difficult experiences in their lives.

"We just want to see them go on from this and maybe get jobs and some permanent accommodation."

Mr Neligan has already seen the growth in some of the team members.

"There's confidence in themselves and their ability to do things. A couple of the guys are fairly shy and a little bit reserved, and you could just see the confidence growing as the tournament went on, and the way they related to each other."

The experience was just as enriching for Mr Neligan, who has played and coached in soccer competitions for many years.

"It's right up there. It's nice to win a club comp that you played in all year, but this is something different.

"One of the hard things about being coach is understanding how these guys are travelling, learning when to give someone space, when to talk to them, and building the relationships with these guys ... it was really satisfying."

Etched in his memory was the "electric atmosphere" of the final, and the moment the final whistle was heard.

"Everybody just invaded the pitch, cheering and congratulations all around, the media doing interviews."

But there had been no crying. "I don't think these guys shed too many tears."


The Big Issue

Media Man Australia Profiles

Social and Community Entrepreneurs