Many of us seek a place, whether physical or metaphorical, where we belong. It’s often not talked about or addressed directly despite how vitally important it is for every human being. It’s why China Town exists in many cities across the World and why you are more likely to talk to a stranger who has the same accent as you on a metro in Japan - we naturally gravitate to people from a similar culture because it’s likely they share our same values and outlook on life.
So what does it mean, to ‘belong’. I define ‘belonging’ as being aligned with something greater than ones self and in which common beliefs are shared - in other words, you do thing's for others and vice versa with no expectation of reward or gain.
In a business sense, companies are struggling with millennials across all sectors. Many are moving on to pastures new after only 2/3 years - a completely different trend to generations before. Could it be that millennials lack the feeling they ‘belong’ within that organisation? Maybe better phrased as a lack of purpose or being unable to evoke impact. Whatever it is, a proportion of young employees in particular feel like they are missing something which makes them really belong to an organisation.
I have been lucky enough to witness what it means to ‘belong’ and it’s life-changing abilities over the past week in it’s purest form - at the point of transition.
Everyone has a story at the Homeless Football World Cup, each individual has come from a place of hardship and has either overcome their challenges or are in the transition period of creating a better life for themselves. Knowing this, it actually puts everyone on a level par, making the focus (as it should be) entirely on their talents as footballers.
Whilst the crowds were cheering (especially for Mexico), I couldn’t help but sometimes remember that these players have faced ostracisation, been outcasts of their communities, been labelled ‘homeless’ with the attached expectations of them providing nothing positive to society. Yet, here they are representing their country and the very people that may have overlooked them.
Involvement is so powerful, on any level. As I watched the Welsh men through the week, they went from blaming each other for their mistakes (which cost them goals and matches) to picking each other up off the floor, wanting to win, motivating each other and really, becoming family. No longer were they promoting just themselves, trying to look good on television or score the most goals; they were now doing everything for each other - a sense of belonging achieved.
Take the story of Paul Vinall (pronounced Vinyl) or better know as “Vinall Messi” back home to his mates - for good reason too, the boy can play. It was day 4 and the Welsh Dragons faced Guatemala. On paper, Wales should have won by a substantial amount but they were put through their paces, down 2-0 at half-time they regathered to bring it back level, 2-2 right on the final whistle. Penalties decided the victor and in the World Cup it's sudden death - luckily Dowie has a safe pair of hands, well for four rounds of penalties anyway. The Welsh lads lose on the fifth round as Dowie's hand's can no longer prevent the barrage of on-target Guatemalan shots. When asked about the low mood of the boys after the game he responds, in his brilliant humour, "they should of bloody scored then" - winning the prize for the most succinct interview all week - nice one Dowie!
The 'low mood' I refer to is a slight understatement. Being pitch side, I watched Paul collapse to the floor, grasping his face in sheer emotion. Tears start to flood down, the crowd at this stage cannot see him due to the barrier, he is all alone. I could feel the pain and embarrassment he felt, knowing that people were following their progress back home. Within seconds however, his teammates come to his aid, lifting him up, Paul still covering his face - he is distraught.
After the Homeless World Cup rituals of shaking hands and running towards the crowd (see above) he breaks away from the team as they leave the pitch side. He pulls his trainers off, wiping tears from his face, he can’t even speak. At this point I am alone with Paul - he is inconsolable but we stand up together and walk, arms around each other, out of the small arena. What happens next is accountability, passion, acceptance and the definition of what it means to ‘belong’.
Paul enters the team huddle and apologises for not following the team out together. Tears still resting in the hammocks of his eyes as he is embraced by all his team mates around him. There’s anger there but this time rather than feeling alone back home, he has his World Cup family around him. They accept his pain, his apology and move on together - knowing that this is a team and not an individual campaign.
I have to admit, I was reduced to a few tears that trickled down my cheek. In this instant it was clear to see the power of sport. It accepts you for all your faults and all your triumphs and best of all, you always get another shot.
Watching these men play has been inspirational, even finding a new sense of belonging myself amongst a group I didn’t know at the start of the week. I’ve learnt that having purpose and belonging are certainly not mutually exclusive - they're vital in fact to being happy, what we all want at the end of the day.
This new family, the Welsh Dragons, both male and female has led to incredible new perspectives for the players. They are going home revitalised and for the majority, eager to get involved in Cardiff 2019’s Homeless World Cup this coming July. They now belong to the World Cup family and that means, they’ll never be alone again.
Street Football Wales is much more than just a Welsh team - they provide opportunity to hundreds across Wales to get involved in Football and change their life. Visit them here: http://www.streetfootballwales.com