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A football team in Hong Kong composed of homeless individuals who participate in international tournaments and overcome challenges through football.

By Charley Ho, Roy Ng & Daniel Paek

Saphire Ho Hoi-ting is leading a group of male football players who are former drug addicts and gamblers to get ready for the Homeless World Cup 2024, which will be held in Korea in September, the first time for the game to be held in Asia.

“The team has started training since April last year. We meet every Tuesday and Friday night to do training and each session lasts for two hours,” Ho, who works in the fashion business, says.

“As team players, they have to show a good attitude and fulfil the attendance requirements.  Players must join at least 80% of the training sessions,” she adds.

Founded in 2001, the Homeless World Cup Foundation hosts the sports event every year. This year,  nearly 50 teams will take part in the week-long tournament at Hanyang University in Seoul. 

Unlike World Cup matches, each game has two halves of seven minutes with a one-minute interval in between each half. 

The team manager says it is important to be friendly but firm when managing the football team. 

“There are two sides of my management: the soft side and the tougher side. I talk to them and check on them. But when it comes to the players’ responsibilities, I tell them strictly about the rules, expectations and the importance of punctuality,” she says. 

“When there are problems in the team, I prefer talking to them directly by WhatsApp messages, phone calls and even fact-to-face chat. I try to show my support for them and encourage them,” the manager says. 

Ho shares gender is not an issue when dealing with a team of men and stresses building trust is the key. 

“I find it easier to work with men as there is a lot less gossip. I can also communicate with them in a more straightforward manner. Trust is a complex thing, especially as a woman working with a group of men. It takes practice for me to show my care for them,” she says.

Without any training in social work and counselling, Ho sometimes has to seek help from others when dealing with issues related to the team. 

“The biggest challenge I find in managing the team is handling players’ emotions, as they have different backgrounds and stories. I try my best to understand them more by chatting with them,” Ho says. 

“The previous team manager comes from a social worker background. But I don’t have such training, so sometimes I seek help from volunteers and social workers,” she adds.

The manager has overcome challenges by her passion and love for soccer and the team. 

Ho has always shared a great passion for sports. She is a former freelance sports commentator for Cable TV. She learnt about the Hong Kong team through a friend.  

“Sports have changed players’ lives. When I see them engaging in training, I think sports have helped them a lot…I remember a mother who shared that football helped her son to get back on his saddle again…what she said made me feel so touched,” she says.

“I think football is a magical thing. It requires teamwork and it helps show people’s real personality, facilitate their communication and enhance friendship. It grooms teamwork spirit, discipline and positive attitude,” she adds. 

The manager hopes people can be more understanding and compassionate when they come across the homeless in the city and appeals for support to the Hong Kong team.

 “We need to understand their situation. Sometimes I also wonder why they resort to drugs and gambling, but perhaps sometimes things just happen. I hope Hong Kong people will support our Hong Kong team. And I hope that people who don’t know much about the homeless make an effort to learn more about them ,” she says.

Edited by Perry Kwok