By Reem Abulleil
It may seem that football has been bringing nothing but disappointment to the Egyptian people lately. First it was the agony of missing out on yet another FIFA World Cup and this month it was Al Ahly’s humbling experience at the Club World Cup in Morocco.
But at the moment, on a remote football pitch in Cairo, the world’s most beloved game is actively changing the lives of a small group of teenagers, each of which is vying for a spot on the team that will be representing Egypt at the Street Child World Cup in Brazil next year.
This group of young footballers, 18 to be exact, have all had experience of living on the streets, but for almost a year now, have been regularly training with one eye on Rio de Janeiro, where the Street Child World Cup will kick off on 27 March 2014.
A little over a year ago, a project began in Cairo with the goal of creating a team that would represent Egypt at the Street Child World Cup – an initiative that was founded by the UK-based charity organisation Street Child United, launched by Amos Trust.
The first Street Child World Cup took place in South Africa in 2010 and the main aim was to provide a platform for street children to be heard and to challenge their negative perceptions and treatment. The project has been endorsed by the likes of Pele, Sir Alex Ferguson, David Beckham and Dani Alves to name a few.
Eight teams, including four female ones, took part in the inaugural cup. However, next March, 20 men’s teams and eight women’s teams from across the globe will gather in Rio de Janeiro for the second edition, which will be a seven-a-side tournament.
Last year, Egyptian investment banker Karim Hosny, who also co-coaches the football team at the American University in Cairo (AUC), heard about the Street Child World Cup while on a trip with his squad for a tournament in London, and it immediately struck a chord.
He found the criteria to qualify a team from Egypt and started working on making it happen. 18 months later, there is nothing that’s standing in the way of Team Egypt, except paper work to issue passports and visas for the players, and the money needed for the plane tickets.
With the help of three NGOs, I the Egyptian, Hope Village and Face, Hosny managed to find his team. They had to be between the ages of 14 and 16, have had experience of living on the streets, but who have now been living in a shelter for at least a year. Hosny formed his team and the football practices started about a year ago.
Each child has a different story. With all the hardships they’ve been through, they are like 30-year-olds trapped in the bodies of teenagers. One of them, Khaled, is 14 and he found himself homeless at just seven years of age, after his mother was arrested and jailed for dealing drugs. He worked on collecting plastic from the streets and selling it to factories before his sister eventually placed him in a shelter with an NGO. He is now one of the 18 who have been training regularly with the Team Egypt hopefuls.
The challenges Hosny and his team faced were numerous; from dodging curfew hours, to transporting the children, to finding available pitches for practice, yet somehow they are now a stone’s throw away from achieving their goal.
“It was quite tough with all the stuff that was happening in Cairo, but we were stubborn, we never cancelled practice for anything. Even the day [former president Mohamed] Morsi was deposed, we still went to practice,” explained Hosny.
“It was a big fight. The general mood in the city was negative and logistically it was difficult. The curfew also didn’t help. But we kept going.”
Helping him in the project and with training the kids are Mohamed Khedr – Hosny’s co-coach at AUC, Mohamed Abouhussein (Milano) and Morad Hakim.
They’re all volunteering their time and have been paying out of their pockets to finance the project so far. But Hosny says he truly believes in the impact this programme can have.
“We believe in the power of football,” says Hosny. “It brings everyone together it puts everyone on the same ground. It attracts and includes a lot of dynamics that we experience in real life, with the different positions on the pitch, the different characters, team work… it’s very powerful in teaching and rehabilitating.”
And indeed the coaches can see the difference their programme has made with the children so far. The NGOs usually struggle to keep the children in their shelters, but Hosny explains how they’ve been using their programme as an incentive for the kids to stay committed to a life away from the streets and the dangers that come with it.
“The aim is to change the perception of people towards street children. People look down on anyone living on the streets, but these are children – it’s not their choice to be in this situation. So just bringing them together, giving them a reason to stay off the streets, qualifying them for the world cup and taking them to Brazil, this gives them hope, shows them they’re not forgotten,” he says.
Milano, who played for Paris Saint-Germain for four years before moving back to Cairo, says working with the kids has been like a dream. He and Hosny are planning to create a foundation that can continue the work they’ve been doing, well beyond the world cup.
But right now, the focus is on selecting nine players from the group, to create the team destined for Rio.
“I love these kids, they really are a great group,” says Milano. “I got attached to them in a way I didn’t expect.
“At first it was tough. They didn’t know what to expect. They were confused. They just thought they’d come play some football and that’s it. For example, the kid who was initially our goalie is now our best player on the pitch. He didn’t have the will inside at first. Once we started training him hard and moving him around the pitch he became a totally different player.
“Most of them didn’t know how to play at all and I wasn’t sure we had the coaching skills to lift them up but they proved us wrong “.
“I have complete faith in them, that they can do something. They’re all physically much better now as well, they’re more disciplined. Kids that age are attention-seekers but now you can see that any attitude problem has disappeared. It’s going very well.”
To try and make the selection process as inclusive as possible, the coaches have asked the children to each write down their ideal team of nine and the most-mentioned names will set the base for the coaches’ final decision.
Hosny says the two main challenges now are the paper work and the funds needed for the plane tickets. A few local businesses have stepped up to the plate, supporting the cause, including Azza Fahmy Jewellery, who are selling “Ana Masry” bracelets to raise money for Team Egypt.
For more information, visit www.streetchildworldcup.org, follow the progress of Team Egypt on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/StreetChildWorldCupRio2014EgyptTeam and on Twitter: @SCWC_Egypt.