Words: Isobel Irvine Photos: Anita Milas and Romain Kedochim It’s a dreech Monday in Oslo but there’s a massive spring in the step of Barbara Geddes and Sophie Gallacher of Scotland’s women’s team at the Homeless World Cup – they’ve just seen off Hungary and Ireland to make it through to the Women’s Fretex Plate Final tomorrow, against Greece.
There may have been plenty other football action around featuring Scots over recent days but this team, and their male counterparts, have attracted a vocal following over the last week in the Norwegian capital and though keen to lift the trophy, are equally insistent that this week is about more than football.
The team comprises players recently or currently homeless, many who have battled their demons with alcohol or drugs, who are given this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate in the Homeless World Cup. The tournament, is now in its 15th year, has attracted a record number of women’s teams in 2017 and has demonstrated its worth through participants like Barbara and Sophie.
Barbara began her involvement with the squad relatively recently but her love of the beautiful game started many years before.
“I played football 20 years ago and I was looking to get into a sport again so I went with one of my friends to one of the drop-in sessions with Street Soccer Scotland, we trained, met the coaches – they were great – and their journey was really inspiring,” she says.
“You could feel their passion and that was really attractive to me. I started attending twice a week – I’d only been going for six weeks before we came here, to be honest, but my fitness has improved and so has my mental health,” she admits. “I’ve got a really good focus because it’s not just football – it’s being part of the team that really matters.”
Having played as a child with her friends, when she turned 16 she joined a team but, “there wasn’t much structure or proper training, so I moved into a women’s team but at that time my head wasn’t in it. I was there for six months then I left and never picked it up again until six weeks ago.”
The feeling of team spirit, belonging and mental wellbeing is paramount to Barbara. “For me, how I feel really affects how I perform – as I said, the coaches are amazing and there’s a lot of talk about how you feel. With football being a mental game as well they try to focus on balancing our minds, telling us we’re good enough to do this.
“To be honest, if I never had these talks I never would have stayed and never believed I was good enough.
“The first couple of weeks I felt like a fish out of water but I was made to feel very comfortable – Street Soccer is amazing, it’s like a family, so I felt comfortable to ask questions and say how I really feel. I ask a lot of questions so the coaches are probably getting fed up with me! Physically it’s tough but I’m really proud because my fitness has improved, my football’s improved and I’ve stuck at it.
Win, lose or draw the tournament, she enthuses, has been amazing.
“I didn’t know what to expect – and things like I’d never flown before, never been on an aeroplane, made me feel quite anxious. But from the start of travelling to get here, it’s been a life-changing experience.
“It’s just amazing, because all us players have something in common here. You see other people who have been through similar challenges. It’s been amazing meeting all these people – I’ll never be in this situation again where I’m going to meet people from all corners of the world.
“I can’t imagine not going to street soccer now. That’s how I feel. And that’s quite an incredible statement given I’ve only been going to sessions for six weeks. It’s such a big focus in my life now. I’d love to keep training and maybe volunteering too.”
Scotland coach Sophie Gallacher knows exactly what that feels like as this time last year she was a player – if a shy, quiet kind of participant – at Glasgow 2016. How did her football journey bring her to Oslo and into a lead role?
Sophie explains, “Street Soccer Scotland usually pick a player from the past year’s team and take them on as an assistant coach, so I was asked to do that. I was happy to do that and I’ve loved it.
“When I finished the tournament last year I went on a placement and volunteered with Street Soccer for a few months to build up my confidence and learn from other coaches, learn how to take sessions. As I’ve always played football and I still play with a team, I try to take learnings from my own sessions into our training.”
So what’s the secret of being a good coach, then? “Patience!” Sophie laughs. “It’s been good, but it’s been hard work. “Last year I was dead, dead shy and I could never have imagined myself here doing all this stuff.”
‘All this stuff ‘ means taking on the role of head coach, which wasn’t really in the game plan until a matter of weeks ago.
“Mandy, the manager for the last couple of years, was meant to be coming as the manager this year and I’d be the assistant but she broke her ribs just before the tournament and couldn’t fly so I’ve had to step up. I couldn’t let anyone down.
“My experience last year was completely different because I was a player so I’ve been trying to pass on that experience to the rest of the girls. I’m not just trying to tell them things because that’s what I want them to do – I know because I was there, so I know mentally and physically how hard this is. They might only be 14-minute games but it’s really hard.
What has become less of a challenge, however, is Sophie’s life off the pitch since becoming involved with Street Soccer Scotland, particularly over the last twelve months.
“My life’s completely changed since last year,” she says. “I’ve got a full-time job and I volunteer with the team. I love getting up and going to work, love going to the training sessions. I know not everybody’s fortunate enough to love getting up to go to work.
“I’ve grown, as a person, so much this year too – my confidence, my self-esteem, my belief in myself – and I’ve met people this year who were in Glasgow and they still remember me – it’s brilliant.”
The beautiful game, indeed. But Sophie is insistent that the Homeless World Cup and her experience of football, is so much more than a game with winners and losers.
“This is more than a game, definitely. Football’s just a bonus. I know you want to win it – but it’s just because you’re passionate and you love the game. People here are getting beaten every game but they still love it. That’s the main thing.
“This is life. Football’s just the bonus.”
The Scots in action in Norway: Barbara, Sophie, Scotland women with FIFA’s and Homeless World Cup ambassador Honey Thaljieh. Photos: Anita Milas and Romain Kedochim