WHEN Canada's national women's homeless world cup team scored their first win of the Homeless World Cup in late August in Paris, France, a former West Vancouver player was calling encouragement from the sidelines.
Dominique Falls was a star player for the Sentinel Spartans 10 years ago, but considers coaching the national women's homeless team one of the highlights of her career.
It's the first time women's teams have competed at the international tournament for street-involved and marginalized players, and comes just as a new co-ed but largely female street soccer team was launched on the North Shore.
"We scored a goal against Brazil, and we just thought we had died and gone to heaven," said Falls, now an SFU student studying sociology of sport. "I mean, we lost 9-1, but Brazil is amazing, so we aren't going to go in with unrealistic expectations."
While the team came home with a respectable four wins and five losses, street soccer is more about successes off the field than on, she said.
The movement started about 10 years ago, with the goal of bringing together marginalized people, often living on the street or in shelters and dealing with addiction or mental health issues, and give them an outlet to have fun and better their lives. Soccer made sense, due to the low cost to play, and street soccer quickly became a worldwide phenomenon with a vibrant eightteam Vancouver league, including the North Shore Shields.
Through soccer, people are able to build selfconfidence and a social support network made up of new friends, said Falls. In many cases, it's just about having something positive to do for people who are unemployed and don't have any other outlet, she added.
Starting in 2003, an annual Homeless World Cup has brought together men's teams from across the globe to compete, while a parallel women's tournament was launched this year, with Canada's team made up entirely of Vancouverarea players.
"The point is not to take the best, the brightest, the most in shape, the really great players," said Falls, "but rather those who most benefit from the experience. As well, players can only go once. Otherwise you just always pick the best of the best and keep sending them. That defeats the purpose of inclusion, spreading it forward and passing the opportunity to others."
For players like Erin Backer, the chance to represent her country is more than a dream come true - it's something she didn't even dream about before.
"I didn't expect to represent anything," she said. "All the signs (advertising street soccer) said Paris 2011, and I was like 'Whatever, it's just a way to get people out.' Three months later they asked, 'Can you get time off of work to go to Paris?' and I said, 'You'd better not be joking.'"
Backer is splitting time between rehab and shelters in the Downtown Eastside since she committed to get sober May 3, 2010, and has held that commitment since. This year she has a steady job as well, and she said soccer played a big part in her recovery this year, providing an escape and a place to meet new people.
On the North Shore, coach Charles MacGregor, a volunteer with the Salvation Army in North Vancouver, hopes to place North Shore players on the national team next year.
He started organizing teams seven years ago, first with youth, followed by the men's team for four years. Now, he's started a new co-ed team has brought a lot of women into the sport, and MacGregor hopes to raise the profile starting with a match against North Shore mayors and councillors Sept. 18 and a tournament planned for next spring on the North Shore. City council unanimously endorsed the plan and pledged $1,000 to the cause Monday night
"It's cheap. When I was growing up I couldn't afford hockey equipment. My dad gave me a pair of boots and a soccer ball and I could play," said MacGregor, when asked why he organizes soccer in particular.
"We have meals once a month, if you have any problems you can talk about it. It's not just about football, it's about life."
The team's captain, striker Natasha Scott, said she wouldn't mind playing in the World Cup next year if she's able, but her primary focus is having fun. She already leads an active life despite living in the Lookout Shelter in North Vancouver, and tries to use her position as captain to be a role model to other women.
"You can have a good meaningful life. You can be an active part of the community. You can aspire to be something" despite being poor, she said - even represent Canada on the world stage.
For more information, visit www. vancouverstreetsoccer.com.