Not Just a Game

by Marissa Dearing:

David Duke is a survivor. After his father’s death and a breakup with his girlfriend, Duke developed an alcohol dependency. At 23, he found himself homeless in Glasgow. But then Duke came across an article about the Homeless World Cup and soon made the Scottish national team, an accomplishment that would spur many others. The Scots came in fourth in the 2004 Gothenburg Homeless World Cup, and David Duke’s life began to change. Soon after, Duke returned as the team’s assistant coach, and later as manager, leading the Scots to victory in the 2007 Cup held in Copenhagen.

The Homeless World Cup is an annual international soccer tournament co-founded in 2003 by Mel Young, a prominent Scottish social entrepreneur who also co-founded the Big Issue in Scotland, a weekly street paper sold by homeless people. The Homeless World Cup Organization aims to raise awareness, unify the homeless, and foster their integration into society, with the ultimate goal of a world where everyone has a home. The Cup also works to fight the stigma of homelessness by showcasing the players’ determination in sport. Eighteen national teams participated in the first Cup in Graz, Austria, and this August, 64 teams competed in Paris, France, 16 of which took part in the Women’s Homeless World Cup.

Soccer is a universal language that all people regardless of creed or nationality can appreciate emotionally. As Duke attests, “You don’t need any money to play football. It is inclusive; everyone is part of the same game. The social exclusion that homeless people feel most of the time does not exist on the pitch.”

A female soccer player, given a chance to turn her life around, participates in the Homeless World Cup. (Courtesy Homeless World Cup)

The Cup affords players the pivotal experience of belonging to something. “You understand that you are not alone, that people who live on the other side of the world are actually in the same situation as you,” said Duke. The crowd’s applause and media attention also encourage and inspire players; accustomed to distance and distaste, they are energized by the positive attention.

A great deal of planning for the Cup occurs on the national level, where each team is affiliated with a program in its home country, for example Street Soccer USA in the United States. Founder Lawrence Cann explained that this organization “delivers a curriculum of life and job skills through on-the-field and off-the-field activities. The curriculum drives toward outcomes in self-efficacy, emotional self-regulation, increased social network, physical and mental health, teamwork, and life skills such as financial literacy.”

Members of Street Soccer USA and similar organizations affiliated with the Cup actively recruit each year’s participants. The homeless who earn a place on the national teams find financial support from private donors and foundations including Nike, the European Soccer Federation (UEFA), and the United Nations, among many others.

“Everybody needs to wake up in the morning with a goal. The Homeless World Cup brings this opportunity, to undergo training, to change your life,” said Eric Cantona, a former Manchester United striker and now a Homeless World Cup Ambassador. The Homeless World Cup boasts that an impressive “70 percent of players change their lives for the better; they get jobs, find a home or a partner, come off drugs or alcohol, or fix up their previously damaged relationships.” This was certainly the case with Duke.

Now founder and CEO of Street Soccer Scotland, Duke has come a long way from the days when he was homeless in Glasgow. “I am a social entrepreneur myself. I have set up Street Soccer Scotland to use football to help homeless people in my country.” As an ambassador for the Homeless World Cup, David Duke, like many of the Cup’s participants, has been able to translate the success he found on the field into the rest of his life. Although the Homeless World Cup is by no means a cure-all for homelessness, a problem whose eradication must involve broader economic and educational initiatives, the organization seeks to inspire the homeless to achieve all the positive change within their means. Duke spends his days working to make that positive change a reality for as many of his homeless countrymen as possible, and to that end, he spent much of the last year preparing to take the first ever Scottish National Women’s Team to the 2011 Cup.

Marissa Dearing ’14 is in Berkeley College. Contact her at