This 6 September, in Milan, six young Romanians selected from adoption centres, orphanages and the street will vie to rank among the best homeless footballers in the world. The street ball matches will be short –14 minutes apiece – and on a shoestring budget: each player gets €1,000. The hardest part is persuading them not to spend it all on “aurolac” (the glue some homeless children sniff) or alcohol.

This September’s will be the 7th edition of the Homeless World Cup. The event brings children from all over the world together and gives them an opportunity to forget their old ways, land a job and go to school. And play football. For the Romanian kids, with the championship came the discovery of their very first chocolate bars, instead of the blows they have been taking all their lives. It is a sweet – but shortlived – sensation: one of the rules of the competition is that each player only gets to play one round.

Coach’s main hurdle: piqued players

Last year, in Australia, the Romanian team was ousted by the Mexicans: “They’d won eight out of ten games,” recalls team president Mihai Rosus. They went back to the streets with €1,000 each in their pockets: “One of them rented a studio for six months, but another bought drinks for all his homeless friends – for three days.”

At the outset, Mihai would have liked to take them all in. “11 years ago I saw how they were sniffing aurolac. On the spot I asked them if they wouldn’t rather play football with me. They were delighted. So I kept playing football, as an amateur, with them,” he recounts. He heard about the existence of a world cup for the homeless through a Scottish priest who had brought humanitarian aid to Timisoara, western Romania. Last year, Mihai Rosus began fundraising for the fare to Australia, knocking at the doors of foundations, sponsors, partnering organisations. “I can still remember how some of the players had never seen an airplane before.… Some saw the event as a chance to assert themselves, but unfortunately most of them went back to the streets because they can’t change their old ways of life.”

His main hurdle has always been the aggressiveness of the selected players, which has given no end of trouble to the coach, ex-international Romanian footballer Florin Batrânu : “We opted for those who didn’t act violent to begin with, but even so we had a hard time. They get angry and leave the field at the slightest word or gesture,” explains Rosus. “But Florin gave them to understand this isn’t a joke. Those who aren’t serious about it are free to go back to the street.”

This year, Mihai Rosus was not hard put to find gear for his team: professionals from the Romanian Football Federation took them under their wing and sponsored their kit. The players promised in return to come back with the Cup.…