Thirty years of ups and downs — the last five of which he has spent living in a park — have not rusted Takashi Ito’s ball-control skills as much as he had thought they would.
Ito, 50, wants to score at least one goal in the upcoming Homeless World Cup, an annual tournament for homeless players to be held in Sweden later this month.
“It is like riding a bicycle. Once you learn, your body always remembers,” said Ito, a former restaurateur who has lived in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Chuo Park for the past five years and who played soccer for two years in high school.
“It is amazing for someone like me to have a chance to go overseas to play soccer.” he said. “I can’t even afford a (train ticket) out of Tokyo.”
Aiming to raise public awareness of homeless issues in Japan, eight homeless vendors of the Big Issue Japan magazine in Tokyo and Osaka will also take part in the five-a-side soccer tournament, which will he held in Goteborg, Sweden, between July 25 and Aug. 1.
The international event has been organized by the International Network of Streetpapers since last year, with a view to raising public awareness of homelessness worldwide and giving homeless people a chance to change their lives.
This year, teams representing 32 countries will compete for the bronze Homeless World Cup.
With the success of the first tourney held in Austria last year, the United Nations and Union of European Football Associations now officially support the event. Each national team has domestic sponsors who finance the players’ trips, uniforms and other costs.
But the Japanese team’s participation has not been easy, due to difficulties in securing corporate sponsorship and obtaining passports for players lacking fixed addresses when they were invited in April to join the tournament.
Through efforts by officials at the British Embassy in Tokyo, three foreign corporations agreed to offer sponsorship; Virgin Atlantic Airways is donating plane tickets, Bloomberg the team uniforms and Puma soccer shoes.
Britain is where Big Issue originated.
The remainder of the team’s travel expenses will be covered by individual donations and profits generated by Big Issue Japan, the magazine officials said.
“In other developed countries, the homeless issue is viewed as a social problem and thus domestic corporations actively engage in projects to aid people on the streets, whereas in Japan, it is viewed as an individual problem,” said Miku Sano, an editor of Big Issue Japan who will manage the team’s trip to Sweden.
Sano voiced hope that Japanese companies will play a more active role in homeless-related projects.
To obtain passports, the players’ supporters found an apartment for some of them to live together so they can apply for residency registration.
Other members paid monthly rent for cheap inns designed for day-laborers in advance, thereby allowing them to have fixed addresses.
While more than a dozen homeless people expressed a desire to join the team, only eight could finally obtain passports.
The final issue is whether the extemporary team can actually compete in the tourney, in which many teams prove to be highly competitive last year. After the first world cup, a dozen players were scouted by semi-professional soccer teams in Europe.
Beginning this month, members of the Japanese team have engaged separately in daily practice in Tokyo and Osaka and have held weekend trial matches.
After several matches with opponents including a team of British Embassy officials, Ito remains the only player in the Tokyo team who has scored.
“It is great to have your team work together every day for a shared goal,” said Ito, recalling his lonely days on the streets.
“The most important thing is for every member to have a good memory of the event.”