Monday, October 4, 2010

Homeless World Cup: Team Canada

My New Friends from Canada

The past week has been interesting. Copacabana hosted the Homeless World Cup from September 19th-26th. There were representatives from 54 different countries both men and women, playing a form of 4 on 4 football on artificial surface on a elevated platform. All this, on the beach within walking distance of the famous Copacabana Palace Hotel. Players from these countries were sponsored by various organizations or did their own forms of fundraising to make the trip to Rio. Nike was a main tournament sponsor, giving the players football shoes, shirts and shorts.

My friend Jim, who lives in Niteroi sent me a message about this tournament and I decided to volunteer to help out. For five days, I volunteered working the security gates at the venue checking badges to make sure the right people entered their perspective areas. My favorite part was to meet the athletes, see them play and hear their stories of how they are dealing with adversity. I have never been homeless, but I did live in a shelter for a while due to economic problems.

The purpose of this tournament is to bring awareness to homeless populations worldwide. The idea was started by Mel Young in a bar talking with friends. What better way to bring people together than the international appeal of football (or soccer). The criteria for the players is that within the last year they had to be homeless. They are only allowed to play in one Homeless World Cup tournament. Their slogan is “A ball can change the world”

The first team I met was from Finland and a player by the name of Patrick Kulmala. This mans story was sad. He was a former drug addict and because of his excessive use, lost his left arm. He still got out there and played with heart. When he returns to Finland he will have a job waiting for him and the support of his family to continue his recovery.

I had the opportunity to live in Canada for a while so when I saw the Canadian team, I wanted to talk to them. Other than my life here in Rio, if I had the chance, I would move to Canada. I love everything about Canada, the people, the beauty of the mountains in Vancouver, the multi-culturalism, the hockey, you name it…

It was difficult not to be drawn to Team Canada as their enthusiasm was amazing. The first player who I made contact with was Peter Chow as I saw an article written about him on the Homeless World Cup website ( Team Canada had this spirit that everybody notice. They did not have the talent like Brazil or Chile but were so happy to be here in Rio taking part. Before each game they would do this synchronized dance in a circle to get the crowd going.

I made contact with Wendy and Kailin, two of the organizers with the team. They were interested in visiting the favela. Saturday after playing two games, I took the group to the favela. The idea was to play some hockey and soccer and interact with the people in the community. We found some kids at the Quadra Rua 1. It’s a big building that holds samba practices, baile funk parties and football games for the people in the favela. We rounded up some kids and got an informal game going. The kids eventually mixed in with the Canadians so favela kids were playing with them, not against them. For kids of the favela, most of them have never met people from Canada. We need to have more things like this here where our favela can meet and interact with other cultures.

There is much similarity in the social exclusion of favela residents and with the First Nations people of Canada. The majority of Team Canada were First Nations people. We share the same treatment in the countries we live. We are generally seen as a people with little or no value and not treated with respect. There are exceptions, but both Canada and Brazil have a ways to go with eliminating prejudice against “our peoples”. I think this is what drew me to enjoying Team Canada more than any other team. I understood and have experienced the same prejudices they have.

After playing some football we went to a friends rooftop that overlooks a 365 degree view of the favela. Many of the guys were amazed. I was so proud to have them there.
They had many questions and even some said they could easily live here in Rocinha.

The majority of these players come from addiction of abusive backgrounds but you would never know it from their professional behavior and respect of the favela. Not one person mentioned drugs or the social ills that plague our community. They were here to see absorb and take it all in. I am sure it made an impact on some of them.

The guys were hungry so we ate at one of my favorite little places at the top of the hill. Bar do Familia is the place I go when I am hungry and want to eat for under $7R a full meal. We fed the army of 12 Canadians for $50R. I got to talk with goalkeeper Kevin King about life here in the favela on a more personal level. I know that in the beginning he felt uncomfortable being in the favela, as for North Americans, the environment can be shocking. I explained to Kevin that he should not feel bad as most people are happy here. Just the fact of the Canadians being here, we feel like we have value. When you come to visit Rocinha, you embrace us as one of your own. Its not about the poorly built housing or lack of infrastructure that makes Rocinha, it’s the people. Yes, the favela has its problems but we have much good things going on here too. We have had to make do with what we have.

After the stomachs were full, I took them through the labrynth of alleyways that make up 95% of the community. Many took pictures and were intrigued with the chaotic building structures. The favela…no complaints, it is what it is!

I wanted them to see my house as I think it is important to be real with people when I show them Rocinha. I live here and have no shame of my small modest home. It works for me. The players and coaches went out on my roof and took many fotos including a small fireworks display that was going on. I tried to convince them the fireworks were for them, but could not b.s. this group.

When they all came inside to my living room, I showed them various clothing and things I had from my time spent in Canada. I still feel that I left a bit of my heart in Vancouver (which is where the team is from) and Toronto. I also had 6 hockey sticks and the plan was to find some kids to get a little 3 on 3, but all the players were tired from playing two soccer games and walking in the favela. So, we had to pass on the hockey, but I know someday, I will get a street hockey thing going here for the kids and I would love to have the Canadians in some way involved!

I think the team enjoyed my interest and love for their country. Before we left my house, several of the team presented me with a gift. The special act of receiving the “Eagle Feather” from the Canadians is something I will NEVER forget!!!! Now, I need for them to give me instructions on how I should display it as I want to show it the ultimate respect it deserves. I have it put away in a safe place until further instructions.

We continued our walk down the hill and at the bottom, my Capoeira friend Mestre Manel of Acorda Capoeira, was having a demonstration. To me, there are similarities in the First Nations Pow Wow gatherings and Capoeira. It’s a gathering of a cultural form of expression of specific peoples. There are rituals that are respected in both. To me, a Pow Wow and a Capoeira “roda” (or circle) are sacred and there are rules. Daniel Errey, one of the Team Canada coaches decided to participate in the “roda” and did very well for himself. I later found out that he had some experience and trained for sometime.

We moved on to the “Pasarella” or footbridge that crosses over to the Rocinha Sports Complex. The players took more fotos from the bottom of the favela looking up the hill of 54,000 houses. The Sports Complex was closed. The last stop was to see the Academicos da Rocinha Samba School. I explained about the history of samba and how it’s the focus point in many favelas in Rio.

At this point after about 6 hours, I could see the guys were tired of walking and wanted to get food and return to the hostels. I went with them in the van back to the Mellow Yellow Hostel in Copacabana, to eat dinner and then some decided to jump the subway train to party a little in Botofogo. I sat and talked until 2 am with the players and coaches and then had to get home as the next day I had the team from Belgium planning to visit the favela.

Team Canada, I know this will not be the last time I see you guys..I want to thank Wendy and Kailin for making this happen..and for coming and enjoying my community and showing yourselves as professional representatives of your country and cultures. I WILL NEVER FORGET YOU GUYS!!!!!!!