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Homeless World Cup wraps up at Sac State with soccer, celebrations

Athletes from around the world played their hearts out and gained friends and support during the 18th Homeless World Cup, which wrapped up Saturday, July 15, at Sacramento State’s Hornet Stadium.

About 500 formerly homeless athletes from Australia to Ukraine spent more than a week on campus, representing their countries and putting a face on the worldwide issue of homelessness and housing insecurity.

They lived in Sac State residence halls; took classes in English, Latin dance, and Art; and played fast-paced “street soccer” matches while bonding with volunteers, teammates, and rivals from other nations.

The tournament turned Sac State into a hub not only for soccer, but for spotlighting the resilience of the athletes and searching for solutions to a critical issue both in Sacramento and across the globe.

“Too often, we give up on people who are having a hard time,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, speaking at the event’s opening ceremonies on July 8. “But when you are part of a team, you are not alone. Homelessness does not have to be hopelessness.”

The Homeless World Cup offers participating athletes the chance to be part of a group working toward a common goal, form lifelong bonds, and connect to resources that can lift them from addiction and housing instability.

This year’s tournament, which resumed after three years of pandemic disruptions, was the first in the United States and the first on a college campus. Past host cities include Melbourne, Paris, and Oslo.

Lisa Wrightsman and Tiffany Fraser, former Sac State soccer players and leaders of the Sacramento's street soccer team, played a key role in bringing the event to campus.

“Street soccer totally changed my life,” said Wrightsman, who struggled with alcohol and drug addiction as well as homelessness before attending her first Homeless World Cup in 2010.

At this year’s tournament, volunteers, spectators, and livestream viewers saw athletes display skills, joy, determination, and resilience. The week also included a symposium in the University Union Ballroom that explored the complexities of homelessness, including causes and possible solutions.

More than 700 people volunteered for the event, including many Sac State employees.

“This is about changing the conversation around homelessness,” said outgoing Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen, who officially retired following the conclusion of the Homeless World Cup.

The event’s sponsors honored Nelsen and Team USA with a special citation at the tournament’s end.

Story continues below the image.

Athletes in the 2023 Homeless World Cup played hundreds of games like the one shown here.
Athletes in the 2023 Homeless World Cup at Hornet Stadium played in close to 400 15-minute, four-on-four matches on fields the size of basketball courts. (Sacramento State/Bibiana Ortiz)

To kick off the tournament, athletes paraded across campus from the Housing Quad to Hornet Stadium, sporting their country’s colors on their jerseys, carrying national flags, and erupting spontaneously into chants and songs. The Australians carried inflatable kangaroos. The Norwegians wore Viking helmets, and the Mexicans covered their faces with lucha libre masks.

Once the matches began, spectators were treated to an exciting brand of soccer played on fields the size of basketball courts, featuring four players on each side competing in 15-minute matches.

“I find it really cool that I get to connect with people of different walks of life from around the world,” said Team USA goalie Sienna Jackson of Sacramento. “I hope it helps people see that homeless people are not just folks who are drunk or on drugs,” Jackson said.

Some are young people who aged out of the foster care system and had nowhere to go, she pointed out. Others have untreated mental illness and addictions. Some were living on the edge before they lost their jobs or housing, forcing them to the streets.

Jackson became homeless for a time after leaving her home as a teenager because of family conflict. Now, thanks in part to her discovery of street soccer and access to social services, she has a job, an apartment, and a goal to become a dental assistant.

In the opening match of the 2023 Homeless World Cup, she scored Team USA’s first goal and the first goal of the tournament.

Nearly 400 more matches followed, with men’s and women’s teams from Chile and Mexico emerging as finalists for the Cup on Saturday, July 15. On the women’s side, Mexico won the Cup. Chile captured the men’s trophy. All of the participating teams celebrated.

On a sizzlingly hot day at Hornet Stadium, everyone seemed like a winner.

Homeless World Cup participants, coaches and others pose with flags and items representing their countries.
Hundreds of athletes, coaches and others participated in the 2023 Homeless World Cup at Sacramento State July 8-15, the first time the street soccer tournament was held in the U.S. and at a university campus. (Sacramento State/Bibiana Ortiz)

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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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