Homeless World Cup: one family, different cultures

Referee Oudheusden (right) and Dutch King Willem-Alexander at the Homeless World Cup

Referee Oudheusden (right) and Dutch King Willem-Alexander at the Homeless World Cup

“It is one big family with people from different cultures. You can’t explain the feeling. You should be part of the experience to know what I mean.” Michel van Oudheusden is at loss for words to describe the atmosphere of the Homeless World Cup.

“My wife joined me a couple of years ago in Poznan. When I asked her how she had experienced the tournament, her eyes were filled with tears: ‘All those kind people, even though some of them have terrible life stories.’”

The 47-year-old head of the Dutch Street Cup referees says he never forget his first appearance at the Homeless World Cup, eight years ago. “After the tournament, there was a card for me at the doorstep sent by Mr Ferguson. You know, the manager of Manchester United. He asked if I wanted to be a referee at the tournament in Rio de Janeiro. Well, that’s a dream come true. One year later, I was standing at the beach of Copacabana!”

The first Homeless World Cup was an enlightening expedition for him. “I spoke to some Kenyan players there. They told me how their life was in Kenya. I did not even know they had houses.”

Kenyan Players
“What made the greatest impression on my during these tournaments?” Van Oudheusden is silent. He picks up an empty sugar wrapper and he starts to fold and re-fold it. The white around his pupils redden as he wells up.

“The Kenyan players got down on their knees after our conversation, so I asked them why they did that. They told me that they wanted to thank me, as a white person, because I had been talking to them for more than two hours.” He pauses. “What went through my mind at that moment? You don’t want to know.”

The referee thinks he knows why he feels at home at the Homeless World Cup. “They expect two things of a referee: clear communication and empathy for the lives of the players.”

Twenty years ago, van Oudheusden was recruited by the KNVB (the Dutch national football association) to be a referee in the professional leagues. “However, I was too old for them, even though I was only 28 years old. One year later, I couldn’t be part of beach soccer as well. Then, your world collapses. That’s why I understand these players. You want to improve, but each time you get disappointed. I had the same feeling. I really wanted to be a referee, in normal football, in beach soccer, but they wouldn’t allow me just because of my age. I can tell you, that hurts.”

“During these kind of tournaments, clear communication is vital. Verbal and non-verbal. That’s why I think most of the referees are coming of the south of the Netherlands. Me, I’m from Schiedam. In that region, we are rather straightforward as we say what we think.”

In his everyday life, the referee works in exports. “I have to be clear in my communication as a manager.” Being a referee gives him joy, but is requires a lot of energy as well. “Each of us referees two or three times a day and you are also an assistant for four or five matches. After such a day, you’re really exhausted.”

Fair Play
The man from Schiedam says he will officiate the final of the Homeless World Cup under one condition only: If the Dutch team is not in the final.

“If I have to choose?” he says. “I would love to see the Dutch team win the final. It’s beautiful to see them improving as a team. Just like Mehdi (Mehdi Adl-Kish). Three years ago, he was easily frustrated and didn’t want to shake hands. Now, he hugs you. He really improved as a person.”

At this tournament, he’s joined by Dutch referee colleagues that include Roel Niessing. In Niessing’s behavior, van Oudheusden recognises the joy and true love of being a referee.

“Roel won’t stop being a referee until he’s lying in his coffin. He will die on a pitch. He is as happy as a child to be part of this tournament. The same goes for me, by the way.”

Homeless World Cup