Connected through a love of the round-ball game, a group of Canberrans with diverse backstories and circumstances gather at Reid Oval every week for a friendly football match.
On the field are players who face homelessness, disability, unemployment, substance abuse and mental illness.
As COVID-19 creates added pressure on the community, The Big Issue’s Community Street Soccer Program is a vital initiative for people seeking support and connection through non-traditional avenues.
Eight years ago, Nikolas immigrated from South America with minimal English and a passion for football. His story begins after his father was tortured and exiled from Chile during a 17-year dictatorship that left hundreds of thousands of people dead, missing and driven out of the country. Nikolas’s parents fled to Canberra before returning to South America when he was one year old.
But the later moved back to the ACT and through Street Soccer he represented Australia at the Homeless World Cup in Cardiff, Wales, in 2019. Inspired by his experiences with the program, he has started a Bachelor of Criminology and forensic Psychology at university.
“I have met a lot of people who have been through different things in life and they feel like outcasts, or they have done something in the past they deeply regret, or they have disabilities and are left out of group activities,” says Nikolas.
“For the people who have those issues, it’s just beautiful for them to come here. No-one is going to judge them and everyone is going to support them.”
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Other players at Street Soccer have also immigrated or escaped civil unrest, and are connecting with the community and practising English like Nikolas.
“Being able to support each other, pass the ball around and communicate, it’s just building teamwork and that goes beyond soccer,” says Nikolas. “That can help you in your studies and work so it’s just amazing.”
This year, a new study revealed 1600 people are homeless in the ACT, mental health wards reached full occupancy across the territory, and calls for help with drug and alcohol use doubled in the past two financial years.
Additionally, Canberrans living in difficult circumstances are under increased pressure from high rental rates and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Street Soccer provides a link between members of the community facing disadvantage and support services with a personal focus.
Program coordinator Ronnie MacLeod has been coaching Street Soccer for more than seven years, harnessing the power of football to create positive change for people facing disadvantage in Canberra.
“I like to see the many people from different backgrounds and nationalities,” he says. “They all have different circumstances, but everybody just comes together and it’s a real social event.”
At half-time, OzHarvest arrives with lots of food and those people who need to can take additional meals home.
The dynamic of Street Soccer is about supporting and helping each other, and as a result Ronnie has watched many players come out of their shell through the program.
“When you see people who are homeless and then they get temporary accommodation and then move into permanent accommodation and get a job and move on, it’s sad to see them go, but it’s also great,” he says.
“That is what I get the most benefit from, just to see somebody come from nowhere and take off, full of confidence and raring to go.”
Two players from Canberra’s Street Soccer have had the opportunity to compete internationally. For one of the players, it was his first time travelling overseas. Each year, Ronnie also takes the team to Sydney or Newcastle for competitions.
“It’s a safe environment, people can come here and they know that no matter who else attends, whatever background they are from, everybody comes together,” he says.
“It doesn’t matter if they can’t play, the other guys who can play will just stand back and at least let them have a kick.”
Street Soccer is a free program open to all people over the age of 16 and is played at Reid Oval every Wednesday afternoon from 2 pm. For more information, go to The Big Issue.
Original Article published by Meg Hobson on The RiotACT.