Football. Freshly cut green grass…loud piercing whistles…large empty white nets…deep blue water.
That’s right - water.
Not what you ordinarily associate with football, but that is because you do not ordinarily see football being played on a 23 tonne floating pitch in the middle of Sydney Harbour! Not unless you also went along to see the amazing third annual Street Football Festival.
The Street Football Festival is one of the methods the The Big Issue is using to combat homelessness and disadvantage, which also includes a street magazine, and a Community Street Soccer Program.
Launched in 2007, the Community Street Soccer Program is an initiative which uses the power of football to help participants overcome challenges in their lives.
If you struggle with mental illness, homelessness, drug or alcohol dependency, physical disability, unemployment or family issues, or are a refugee, the Community Street Soccer Program is there to help. It seeks to improve your life through reconnection with the community, improving confidence, increasing self-esteem and improving physical and mental health and a sense of belonging.
According to one of the program’s participants, Shane, one of the best aspects of the program is how inclusive it is. He told me that he has seen a man representing New South Wales who had very limited mobility as a result of a stroke. "It’s not about skill, it’s about enjoying yourself," Shane said.
** NOTE: Apparently being incredibly uncoordinated does not qualify as a disadvantage, so I had to look elsewhere to find a team **
When I first spotted the floating pitch, I had to remind myself that it was not a fantasy, there actually was a pitch floating in the middle of the harbour. It looked incredible, with many passers by stopping to check out the action and numerous local workers using their lunch breaks to watch a game or two.
Originally sprouting from the Big Issue’s Community Street Soccer Program, the Street Football Festival is now one of the fastest growing community sporting events in Australia, and arguably its most significant.
This year, more than a thousand players competed in over three hundred matches in a mix of junior, corporate, government and A-League competitions, as well as the Community Soccer Program’s national championships.
Normal football rules apply, but the games are restricted to 5 players per side. And after inquiring I was assured that despite being on water, diving will still get you a yellow card. (Insert hysterical laughter!)
I spoke with one of the program’s participants, Adam, about how he got involved:
“About a year and a half ago, I was homeless, living on the streets, and I came walking past one day and I saw the soccer…and so I went over there and started playing...Represented New South Wales at the Nationals last year, so that was pretty good…”
In order to participate in the Community Soccer Program or Street Football Festival you have to be drug and alcohol free- a method that has secured a safe and happy environment for all participants, and has prompted major changes in many of their lives.
And the program actually works.
“The Big Issue helped me get up and get off the streets. It’s made a huge difference. It gave me the confidence to pick myself up and meet people who could help and since then I’ve got a full time job and I’m living in my own house,” said Adam.
There’s something so special about it all that I can’t help but get mooshy! They call football the ‘world game’ and it’s a universal truth that disadvantage can befall anyone. It seems that the simple opportunity to play a football game is as good a way as any of highlighting our common humanity. That, and shouting at a referee!
The Big Issue Street Football Festival is the annual culmination of the Community Street Soccer Program. It is both an example of what the program can do, bringing people together to celebrate diversity and promote social inclusion, and a fantastic celebration of people in the program and their commitment.
"It is important because it gets it out there," Adam told me. "It alerts people to The Big Issue, and the problems that they help with. It is good for people who are less fortunate than everyone else. It gives them the ability to get out, meet people, play soccer and have fun."
Umm...and did I mention they’re playing on water? AMAZING.