Greek Homeless Football Team a step towards social inclusion

ATHENS (Xinhua) – A diverse football team featuring those who have suffered from homelessness and drug addiction, as well as people who are asylum seekers train every Sunday in a municipal stadium in the centre of Athens.

The aim is to use football as a vehicle to integrate people into society.

“Through sports, we want people not to win some football games, but their life back,” team manager Christos Alefantis told Xinhua recently.

“Our motto is that we play to be better people and not better football players,” he added.

The Greek Homeless Football Team made their debut in 2007 before the economic crisis hit the country.

Alefantis recalled the first practice back in March 2007 was with few people. “We threw the ball on the field, and you could see our souls smiling,” he said.

After 2011, the situation changed when Greece witnessed the biggest challenge of the ongoing economic and financial crisis.

An Afghan immigrant practising with the Greek Homeless Football Team in a municipal stadium in the centre of Athens, Greece. – PHOTOS: XINHUA
Coach of the Greek Homeless Football Team Yannis Kotsos on the field for practice

As Alefantis said, homelessness is considered a new term in Greece. “Neo-homeless man is you and me who have lost our job and later our home,” he explained.

The new reality was also depicted in the team, as more people were joining the training every Sunday.

“People who were living under extreme conditions in their everyday life were seeking for a shelter,” he said.

For Alefantis, the most important thing is to bring the best out of themselves, to improve as people and to take this from the field to their real lives.

They meet every Sunday in the evening and practise for two hours. The training is open to everyone; the only condition is to keep the schedule.

“They need to respect themselves and their co-players, and to follow the time-schedule. Things that will help them with their life outside of here,” team’s coach Yannis Kotsos said.

Besides the training, the football team participates every year at the Homeless World Cup. For 2018, the World Cup was held in Mexico, and Greece’s women team brought home the Fair Play prize.

“We were prepared to enjoy the game no matter what. It was a great experience,” Aggeliki Boutri, 39, who travelled to Mexico for the tournament told Xinhua.

A friend prompted her to join the team, after attending together an addiction rehabilitation programme.

“It is a big team with people from different countries. I experienced care all the time. We make a circle, we talk, and we put our goals. There is a connection and a concern that it is not easy to find,” she acknowledged.

For Apostolis Dalaveras, the experience he had during the World Cup in Mexico was the best of his life.

“Due to the addictions I had, I had left sports activities aside, and I realised at 37 that I had missed that,” Dalaveras said.

Competing at such events allows people to mix and learn more about other cultures, traits and ways of life different to their own, they told Xinhua.

“The team here is a social tool to integrate people back into society, people who are excluded,” Kotsos said.

In line with Kotsos, Alefantis stressed that “social football can change the world”.

For the future, Alefantis shared his vision, “Our vision is one day the team will not exist, along with the people who live under extreme conditions of poverty.”

Until then, he hopes the team to give joy to as many people as it can and to support people in need.