In my experience, football is seen by people as either a religious following or something that is just a game. But what is often underestimated in Britain is that it is a game with the power to change people’s lives.
Currently, the Homeless World Cup is taking place in Glasgow’s George Square, and if you have a spare moment until the 16th July, I’d highly recommend popping down. Games last for 14 minutes, and entry is free. You are guaranteed a super match, whichever one you decide to watch, and you’ll probably end up watching more. They are also live-streaming the matches.
Homelessness is a worldwide problem as the President of the Homeless World Cup Mel Young states, how it is dealt with depends on where you are. In Africa, homelessness is seen as part of poverty. The USA, the richest country in the world has 3 million homeless people. There is no Chinese team at the Word Cup because China does not admit that there is homelessness in their country. No one is allowed a visa to attend the Homeless World Cup. Andy whilst Russia admits homelessness exists in their country, their police will push homeless people into frozen rivers.
What the Homeless World Cup does is to work with their national partners in each country to help change people’s lives. Each country has their programmes with people trying to get into the squad to play at the World Cup. For example, Mexico has 29,000 in theirs and they are the current holders in both the men’s and women’s competition. It allows them to build their self-esteem, to become footballers, representing their country at a major competition, singing the national anthem.
One of the competition’s global ambassadors is Honey Taljieh and a prime example of the power of football to change lives.
At a talk at the tournament, she introduced herself as “Honey, a Palestinian, Arab, Christian, woman who plays football.” As much as her religion, ethnicity and nationality – football defines her personality. And she founded Palestinian’s first women’s football team and their national side.
She grew up in Bethlehem facing immense cultural barriers with people not wanting to her to play football, none more than her father who would punish her when he got in from work. Playing football, she was challenging family, neighbours and a culture where girls were expected to help her mother and then get married. And to make things more difficult, she faced the restrictions of the borders and checkpoints, and a Christian in a Muslim country – football was her identity.
Despite all of these challenges, she founded the first Women’s Team in 2003 – Bethlehem University – alongside Samar Mousa, the athletics director at the university. She started with just five players, but by travelling to deprived areas and refugee centres, these numbers are now in the 100s of girls playing. Here, football is much more than a game – it is breaking down the barriers, building pride. As Taljieh puts it, instead of surviving – it is bringing hope.
When it came to creating the National Team, at first, the Palestinian Federation didn’t want to recognise their existence. By writing letters and contacting the media, she managed to convince the Federation to recognise them.
Their first match in 2005 saw them lose to Jordan. But by 2008, they were playing in the West Asian Championship, in a tournament that was kicked off by the then FIFA President Sepp Blatter. Once again, they lost to Jordan, but this was the first time they had played on a big grass pitch, unlike an asphalt one.
And then when Jibril Rajoub was elected as the President of the Palestinian Football Association in 2008, he saw the benefits of empowering women as a way of projecting a positive image of Palestine.
Despite the growth, challenges still faced women’s football. The checkpoints and borders meant travelling to training would take two hours. Honey had to persuade mothers to lets their daughters train, gaining their trust through her own journey although it also helped the involvement of Bethlehem University, a well-known institution.
Slowly, cultural barriers are breaking down with parents becoming proud of their daughters playing football. Most notably, Honey’s father smiles proudly when she returns back to Bethlehem and takes part in a kick-about.
In 2009, Thaljieh’s career came to an end after an injury, and event she said was her most painful moment of her life. Living in Palestine, you lose hope and develop an angry energy – football was her release instead of being dragged into violence or extremism.
But it was also a changing point in her life as she realised it was an opportunity to give back to boys and girls and allowing them to dare to dream. Working with an NGO, she implemented a school’s programme right across Palestine. Here, the coaching network is vital as they become role models, giving opportunities to children to dream, build careers and being empowered. Taljieh commented that as a coach, the girls wanted to be just like her – even imitating how she dressed.
On the question of how to go forward, FIFA clearly has a reputation for corruption. Ask most people in this country, and they’ll think of the FBI raids. But as Taljieh states, football is a uniting factor and brings people together. You may not understand each other’s languages, but football is a language of its own. And FIFA has the power and money to make an impact in combating poverty, human rights abuses and equality.
Taljieh speaks optimistically about FIFA’s new Secretary-General Fatma Samba Diouf Samoura, the first female ever in the role. Samoura has over 20 years working in the humanitarian field.
And as Taljieh says, FIFA has done more for Palestine than any other political organisation by recognising its Football Association in 1998, whereas, in the UN, it is a country that does not exist.
Not that FIFA is perfect. Sport is still run by men, and between its formation in 1904 and 2012, FIFA had no female board members. But from September, each confederation will have to have one woman on the board, meaning a minimum of seven women in the board of 38. This is not a major leap (you want it to be 19 out of 38), but it is the first step.
And on the Qatar World Cup. She is hopeful that because people are talking about the issues, it will provide a positive change in the region.