Axel Urbina’s wide smile glows as he flips through the pages of his Homeless World Cup scrapbook. He thumbs through articles written about the team’s journey to Milan, Italy, game photos of himself in action and pictures of the team in Madrid, Spain, the magical city they visited on their return trip to Costa Rica.
When Urbina looks at the album’s final picture which is a shot of himself and two teammates holding a sign that reads “Milan 2009: Costa Rica Made History,” he struggles to suppress tears as he reflects on the joy the experience brought to his life, a life he’d almost thrown away.
Two-and-a-half years ago, when Urbina was 14, he began skipping school and spending most of his time hanging out in the streets with his friends. He said he lost interest in school, was in and out of part-time jobs and was unconcerned about his deteriorating relationship with the members of his family, all of whom were living in a one-room house at the time.
Shortly after he dropped out of school, Urbina began experimenting with drugs. He said his habit started with cigarettes and alcohol, and eventually evolved into marijuana, cocaine and even the occasional use of crack. Urbina described one harrowing day when he came home under the influence and was met by his mother at the door. He said his mother gave him the option of either coming inside and working to clean up his life or continuing to live his life in the streets. Urbina chose the streets.
“At that time, I preferred the streets,” Urbina said. “I didn’t care how I was affecting my family. I just wanted to live in the streets with my friends and get high. I stopped caring about anything. Nothing was important to me, and it didn’t matter to me if I lived or die. I didn’t think I had anything to live for.”
After months on the street, Urbina decided to seek shelter – a place to sleep, eat and change clothes. He’d burned the bridges with his family, so that option was eliminated.
He’d heard about the Hogar de Paz shelter in Barrio México and, in January, he showed up at their doorstep.
Hogar de Paz, like several other shelters throughout the San José area, offers a refuge from the streets for homeless young people and adults, most whom have dealt with substance abuse problems in their past lives.
At the Hogar de Paz, Urbina slowly began to kick his drug addictions, going to daily therapy sessions and working with counselors to put the pieces of his life back together. And shortly after his entry into Hogar de Paz, an opportunity rolled into his life in the form of a soccer ball.
Costa Rica’s First Homeless World Cup
In the fall of 2008, José Luis Monge, president of the Costa Rican Football Association for the Homeless, contacted the organizers of the Homeless World Cup, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He had learned of the Homeless World Cup, which has been held annually since 2003, and he thought there would be enough interest in Costa Rica to form a team.
He was right.
Monge did the legwork to generate interest in the creation of a team; he contacted and met with homeless shelters throughout the country. A requirement of the Homeless World Cup is that participating players have experience living in a homeless center, either as former or current residents.
“We worked a lot with the centers when creating them team,” Monge said. “We wanted the players to understand that they had to be improving in their centers to be a member of the team. It is a responsibility to wear the jersey of Costa Rica and to represent the country. Every player on the team had to be demonstrating improvement in the centers and had to meet certain conditions to be able to play.”
On December 11, 2008, Costa Rica was officially invited to the 2009 Homeless World Cup in Milán. In January, Monge held a tournament for all the homeless shelters across the country, drawing over 100 participants for the weekend event. At the conclusion of the event, 14 players were selected as members of the national team pool. By September, that number was whittled to five.
“It was one of the most emotional days of my life when I was told I made the team,” said Nicolás Pérez, 19, a forward on the team. “I never imagined something like this would happen. I never expected to travel, to go to Italy, to play for Costa Rica. I never believed anything like that would happen. It was truly a dream experience.”
The first-ever Costa Rican Homeless World Cup team consisted of five players, three who lived in shelters, including Urbina and Pérez, and two who had done so previously.
In their 12 games at the 7th Homeless World Cup in September, the Ticos finished with seven wins, four losses and a tie. Of the 48 countries represented in the tournament, Costa Rica finished in 14th place. Urbina and Pérez were the leading scorers for the team.
Back in Costa Rica, With Memories for a Lifetime
A goal of the Homeless World Cup organization is to improve the lives of participating players. The organization claims that 70 percent of the 100,000 players who have competed since 2003 have gone on to enjoy significant life changes – such as kicking drug and alcohol habits, moving into homes, getting jobs, going to school and repairing relationships with their families and friends. In this sense, it appears Urbina and Pérez are on the right path.
“I’ve learned the importance of having a family around and now we are talking again,” said Pérez. “I think I showed them that I can get better and improve. They are very proud of me for committing to something and seeing the positive results that can come from doing it. I plan on applying that lesson to finding a job.”
Urbina expressed similar positive lifealtering changes since his experience at the Homeless World Cup.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Urbina said. “I made my family proud and, for the first time in my life, I am proud of myself. I’m planning on going back to school and getting a job. I know now that my life has value and that I can make something of it.”