Toronto’s Dave Bidini is best known in Canada for being the guitarist for the delightfully out-there decades-long alternative rock group the Rheostatics, but in recent years he has made incredible strides as an author of non-fiction tomes, as well. He’s written a few books about the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle – most notably, On a Cold Road, which is a must-read for anyone looking for a serious dissertation into the life of the Canadian rock musician.
He’s also become a keen chronicler of the sports world, having penned such books as Tropic of Hockey, which was named one of the Top 100 Canadian Books of All-Time by publisher McClelland and Stewart, as well as Baseballissimo, a 2004 book about his experiences playing baseball in Italy, which is currently being made into a feature film. With his latest sports-related book, however, Bidini takes a bit of an unexpected detour into a little heard about or written about worldwide soccer tournament that consists of players who are, believe it or not, homeless.
Home and Away: One Writer’s Inspiring Experience at the Homeless World Cup of Soccer, which was originally published in Canada in 2010 under a slightly modified sub-title, is Bidini’s chronicle of his time with the Canadian homeless soccer team at the 2008 Homeless World Cup of Soccer held in Australia. If you’ve never heard of this tournament, believe me, you’re not the only one. As Bidini himself notes about two-thirds of the way through this fairly compact volume (which runs less than 200 pages), “The only televised tournament game was the event’s final, which was aired on one of the local cable access stations. And local beat writers stayed away in droves, reporting only on the event’s opening day and its conclusion.” It seems that homeless street soccer is something very few people want to touch with a ten-foot pole, so Bidini’s excursion into this fascinating sporting event is a much-needed and mostly exhilarating slice of acute observation.
To provide a little bit of background on the event, the Homeless World Cup began after Mel Young and Harald Schmied – a Scotsman and an Austrian – came up with the concept after attending a street newspaper conference in 2002, as they believed they could realise awareness about homelessness through the vehicle of soccer. In 2003, 18 countries wound up competing in the first matches in Graz, Austria. By 2008, a number of major sponsors such as Vodafone, UEFA, and Nike were supporting the tournament, alongside obtaining testimonials from the likes of Ringo Starr, Desmond Tutu and soccer stars Didier Drogba and Sir Alex Ferguson.
That year as well, 56 teams and more than 600 players were expected to attend, making it the biggest tournament of its type altogether. All of the players who qualify must be more or less living on the streets of their respective countries, and players can only play in the tournament during one particular year (so if they played in 2008, they could never compete again in 2009, 2010 and so on) – which seems to be a means of ensuring that as many homeless people can benefit from travelling to a foreign country and being part of something much larger than themselves.
However, as one could imagine, there’s a great deal of behind the scenes paperwork that needs to be done to bring in destitute people into a country – getting some of these players past Customs to their respective destination can be a challenge, particularly if they have a criminal record – and, at least as far as the Canadian team went, hundreds of hours in volunteer resources as well as thousands of dollars in government funding goes into making travelling to this tournament a reality. In addition to this, some of the players – once they’ve set foot in the host country – immediately focus on seeking asylum status as opposed to playing the game, particularly if they hail from war-ravaged countries such as Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, which makes the very concept of this competition a thorny political one at best. All of these elements would, by themselves, make for compelling reading, but Home and Away is much more than that.
Bidini is interested in the sociological makeup of the teams that pit against each other in the spirit of a competitive but compassionate game. In short, he tells the stories behind the backgrounds of these players, coaches and managers, some of whom have come from abject poverty and horribly abusive situations, while others struggle with addiction or mental health issues. It’s these stories that form the heart of the book, and make for a thoughtful and engrossing read. If anything can be taken away from Home and Away, beyond the beautiful sense of camaraderie between teammates under somewhat trying circumstances, is that it hammers home that anyone could be one of these players, and that we’re all but just a paycheque or two away from being on the streets ourselves.
This is underscored by the cast of characters that Bidini introduces who make up the nucleus of the 2008 Team Canada. Notably, there’s 18-year-old Krystal, a runaway from Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood who wanders the streets holding onto a picture of her grandmother before being taken in by her brother – and evolves into one of the tournament’s best female players. There’s also the 45-year-old Billy, who actually was a professional player for teams such as the North York Rockets before succumbing to a nasty OxyContin addiction. Jerry is an aging seat cushion salesman who’d become abandoned by his family while chasing down an elusive patent (and happens to daydream about making dildos with basketball and soccer balls in place of a penis’ head) and then there’s a 24-year-old Moroccan immigrant asked to be called Juventus because, as this person notes to the author, “There are some things that neither you, nor anyone else, can know.”
There are also engrossing stories about past players, as well as those who didn’t make the final cut for 2008 Canada squad, such as one player who used a plane flight to an overseas tournament in 2007 to go cold turkey on methadone, spending the entire eight-hour plane ride in cold sweats beside his manager, who had no clue as to what was going on. There was another incident with a player who locked himself in the plane’s bathroom due to the voices he was hearing in his head, but was gradually coaxed out and went on to to play well in the tournament – only to never be heard from again once he returned home to Canada. Bidini’s style is strictly reportage, and he is non-judgemental when it comes to his subjects, just simply allowing them to unspool their own narratives at their own length, which only impacts the redemption that they will find on the soccer pitch.
If there are any penalties or red flags to be found with Home and Away, they are that in past Bidini books, the author more or less writes from a participant observational standpoint – being more or less immersed in the sports he’s covering. Here, he’s essentially relegated to the sidelines as a passive observer, so there’s at least one notable place in the text where he ascribes his teenage years of dope-smoking and alcohol bingeing and tries to overlay it over the people that he’s writing about. It just doesn’t work very well.
In addition, while Home and Away is a complete and comprehensive look at the sport of street soccer in that Bidini interviews competitors from rival nations – which is meant to illustrate that, even though the Canadians might have it pretty bad in their respective background circumstances, there are people with much worse impoverished life-or-death backgrounds out there – it does take a little bit away from the narrative of the so-called “home” team that Bidini is covering. This causes the book to have a little bit of a lopsided focus.
Still, these are fairly minor pain points, and overall Home and Away is a lively and important read, and sheds a spotlight on a seemingly under appreciated sporting event that one could easily cast away as merely quirky. The book is not only about the importance of bonding to a universal game such as soccer, it’s about humanity’s desire to triumph and rise above some very dodgy circumstances.
Readers will be swept away by Bidini’s lean and cutting prose, and come to a greater understanding and respect for those people you see out on the street around the homeless shelter or begging for change. Before this book, Bidini was an exceptional writer who just happened to be a semi-famous musician. With Home and Away though, Bidini has moved beyond just being a chronicler of all things sports-related, and has captured lightning in a bottle with an even-handed and stunning portrayal of a bona-fide love of a game, played by those who literally have their very own lives and dignity on the line. For that, Home and Away is a must-read for those who want to see how a game is played by the much less fortunate, and believe me, Bidini’s book is a testament to the belief that anyone – no matter their background or lot in life – can score goals that are both personal and competitive with the very best of the best playing in a FIFA World Cup match.