What's with summer and blockbuster charity events? Live 8 is still boiling my cynical blood, and now this, the Nike-sponsored Homeless World Soccer Cup, which just wrapped up in Edinburgh, Scotland last month.
Two hundred and fifty impoverished players, six from the GTA, kicked around the ball for 60,000 cheering fans at the third annual event.
Founded by the International Network of Streetpapers (INSP), the global umbrella which publishes the tabloids sold by homless people, the Homeless World Cup is supposed to be about using "the positive power of football to raise the issue of homelessness and poverty worldwide. Social integration through sport has become a successful strategy in many countries," boasts the Homeless World Cup's official website.
The United Nations is a partner. Adolf Ogi, special adviser to the secretary-general on sport, says from New York that the event "offers a new frame for the empowerment of young adults on the edge of society."
Paul Gregory, coordinator of the Canadian team, says a study conducted last year found that 38 per cent of players found jobs afterwards, 46 per cent found housing and 92 percent said they had new motivation in life.
"It's primarily guys in shelters, in some sort of recovery program, or there's some sort of refugee status,' he says. "We need to say that there are more creative and imaginative ways to help people out rather than warehousing them and expecting people to be happy with that."
But it's hard to believe spectators aren't just there to be titillated by the sight of our least fortunate tearing up and down the field.
You don't actually have to be Diego Maradona to get picked, but obviously you have to be fit to travel. So the event by definition excludes many homeless people who are barely staying alive on the streets. The six players from the GTA on Canada's team were chosen at a tourney at the John Innes Rec Centre.
Fitness isn't the only selection criterion. This year, teams from Kenya, Zambia, Burundi, Cameroon and Nigeria were all denied visas after Britain deemed their players too poor to stay in Scotland and too likely not to return home.
Britain, which obviously does not understand the meaning of hypocrisy, established a hierarchy of impoverishment by passing out visas to homeless teams from England, Spain, Germany, Denmark, Japan, Ireland, Portugal, Canada and so on. (Does anyone else see a First World trend here?)
Then I suppose you could ask if the cash spent yielded value for dollar. The bulk of funds for the tournament came from the city of Edinburgh, but individual teams, including the one from the GTA, relied on local private support to round up the approximately $8,000 needed. So here's the math: $8,000 sent six lucky men for 10 days of athleticism.
But 33,000 to 35,000 people go through Toronto's shelter system every year. Cathy Crowe, a street nurse and co-founder of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC), thinks it's important to stay focused on the enormity of the problem.
Yet she thinks the Homeless Cup "was kind of a nice thing. Individuals I saw profiled were clearly survivors who faced personal issues and were very proud of what they were doing."
John Clarke of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) is more critical: "The weakness of an initiative like this is it tends to imply that the situation flows from personal shortcomings as opposed to societal causes,' he says. "If the resources put into this event were put into actually mobilizing to confront the governments that are responsible, it'd be, politically, money well spent."
Not according to Gregory.
"I can go to any shelter," he says, "and I guarantee I will get five of six guys kicking around the ball and enjoying it and forgetting about what's going on in their lives for half an hour as they play."
If you're wondering, Italy won first place for the second year in a row. Canada placed 20th.