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Keith Deisner, director of development at Peter & Paul Community Services in Soulard, is a soccer nut. Colleagues know him as the guy who wears a different European soccer jersey to work every Friday, the one who had to get satellite television in order to watch the World Cup.
"I once paid fifteen [British] pounds to read a live Internet transcript of a game between Liverpool and this little speck of a club named Havant & Waterlooville," he says. But the first time the 40-year-old Deisner heard about a national homeless soccer league, he was skeptical: "It just sounded so out there. I just thought, 'Come on, no way.'"
A year later, Deisner's mind has changed.
Deisner and David Flomo, a former child soldier from Liberia, started St. Louis' first homeless soccer team in May. Their players come from the shelter operated by Peter & Paul at 8th and Allen streets. Every Friday night the men stow their belongings in the shelter, then head out to a nearby parking lot that doubles as their playing field. For 90 minutes they run laps and drills under the tutelage of Flomo and four assistant coaches, including Deisner. The game is street soccer, played four-on-four on an enclosed paved surface about the size of a tennis court, with halves that run seven minutes each.
What the team lacks in gear — like practice jerseys and proper sneakers — they make up for with enthusiasm. "With the situation most of us are in, we don't get a chance, number one, to exercise; and number two, to just be pleasant with other guys," says Vince, 44, a local construction worker who asked to be identified by his first name because coworkers don't know he is homeless. "There's a lot more camaraderie out here, and we take that off the field."
Now Deisner finds himself proselytizing for the program every chance he gets: "Whenever I tell people about it, they give me this look like I'm pulling their leg. But I'm telling you, this thing is real, and it's big."
So big, in fact, that St. Louis' six-man squad is headed to the Homeless USA Cup in Washington, D.C., later this month on a $1,800 travel grant proffered by the national governing body of homeless soccer, Charlotte-based Street Soccer USA. Albeit a long shot, if any of the local players impress Street Soccer representatives in D.C., the men could be chosen for the national team traveling to Melbourne, Australia, later this year for the 2008 Homeless World Cup.
Yes, homeless soccer is an international phenomenon, replete with corporate sponsors including Nike and UEFA (Union of European Football Associations). Seventeen teams suited up for the first Homeless World Cup in Graz, Austria, in 2003. This year more than 50 teams are expected to compete. Organizers boast that year after year, nearly three-quarters of the tournament participants transform their lives in some meaningful way: getting a home of their own, leaving behind drugs and alcohol, resuming school, going back to work.
Rob and Lawrence Cann, brothers and longtime soccer players who now call North Carolina home, first escorted a U.S. delegation to the World Cup two years ago. Though the team came nowhere near a title berth, the news of their pursuit spawned teams at homeless agencies nationwide.
"It's a program that gives people a goal to come back to every week," says Rob Cann, whose Charlotte-based team practices two or three times a week, year-round. "They see their body transform through training. And it's looking at guys for what they can do, as opposed to what they're struggling with."
Competing for the first time, St. Louis is one of twelve teams planning to suit up for the third annual Homeless USA Cup in D.C. The title match, on June 29, will be played outside Robert F. Kennedy Stadium – right after the homeless players take in Major League Soccer's D.C. United versus LA Galaxy game. "I can't believe our guys are going to get a chance to see David Beckham play!" enthuses Deisner. "Isn't that a scream?"
A life-long soccer player, St. Louis' Liberian coach David Flomo is quite the physical specimen: five-foot-eleven, 230 pounds, thighs the size of watermelons. He says he was homeless for more than a decade after being drafted into the Liberian army when he was sixteen. It was soccer that sustained him through many difficult years, eventually earning him scholarships for high school and college in Ghana and Kenya, Flomo explains. He now holds a master's in social work from Washington University and is completing a master's in public health at Saint Louis University.
"It was not only resilience that I had to have to reach this level," says the 33-year-old Flomo. "It is the self-esteem that I got from playing soccer, the good health and physical strength it gave me." He adds: "You can see my homeless team is not physically fit at all, but if they have this goal, of just winning one game — not even a trophy — I think it can give them a sense of accomplishment, and help get them off the street."