A 52-year-old homeless man who spent nine years on Osaka’s streets after being fired from his job was in Italy in September as captain of Japan’s soccer delegation to the Homeless World Cup.
A total of eight men from Tokyo and Osaka who lost their jobs due to corporate restructuring or saw their temporary work dry up were selected to represent Japan in the competition, which ran from Sept. 6 to 13 and brought together teams from 48 countries.
Members of the Japanese squad, called Nobushi (wandering samurai) Japan, took turns participating in the four-a-side games.
The captain, whose real name is withheld to protect his privacy and who goes by the fictitious named of Hiroshi Matsumoto, was fired from his company at the age of 42 after he was late for work one day following a drinking bout.
He survived by selling empty cans he collected and working as a street vendor, surrounded by people who spent their time drinking and fighting.
“I thought it would be impossible for me to climb up from the bottom,” he said.
After securing a place to sleep under an elevated structure in Osaka’s Namba district, he became a salesman for a magazine to help homeless people. One day, someone from the organization that publishes the magazine asked him, “Why don’t you play soccer?”
At a park on weekends, he unsteadily practiced dribbling a ball, falling over again and again in the process. To improve his soccer skills, he read soccer magazines every evening, sitting on a cardboard box.
Thanks to a grant provided by the organization, the delegation flew to Italy to participate in the Homeless World Cup, where they faced teams of homeless people from around the world.
Players included teenage boys who survived civil wars as well as former criminals.
Overwhelmed by a combination of eagerness and nervousness, the Japanese players did not perform well. “The defense went to bits. I am ashamed when I watch the video now,” Matsumoto said.
After one game, he apologized to his teammates, saying, “I didn’t fulfill my responsibilities as captain. Let’s say whatever we want to say to each other so as not to have any regrets later.” He feels that frank exchange helped the team to bond.
The Japanese lost every game they played, except two they won by default, but the crowd still chanted, “Nippon! Nippon!”
“I think our tireless efforts on the field made a positive impression on them. I was pleased that there were so many supporters,” Matsumoto said. In front of them, he was at a loss for words.
On the evening of Sept. 17, the day after the squad returned home, Matsumoto could be found at his usual spot under the elevated structure, a cup of sake in his hand.
“Now it’s my turn to return the favor to others. I want to tell them that the possibilities are limitless if you don’t give up.”