Home and Away – In Search of Dreams at the Homeless World Cup of Soccer is Dave Bidini’s ninth book, a prolific output, especially considering the books were written while he was busy creating documentary films, newspaper columns, an erotic play, award-winning and multi-anthologized magazine articles and rock albums, and two nice kids who happen to be my niece and nephew. Concerned that it would look like a conflict of interest if I took this on, I asked our associate editor to write about Home and Away but then she lost her copy either on a trip to Iceland or in her apartment, and it was back to me.

Not a problem. I’d read most of Bidini’s oeuvre, and the best of it – works like Tropic of Hockey and Baseballissimo – shared the same winning vitality and enthusiasm as George Plimpton’s Out Of My League and Paper Lion. As with any author you’re familiar with, it’s natural to look for more of the same, especially when humour is part of the equation, but Home and Away is different, a serious meditation on the dispossessed men and women that live in our bus shelters, ravines and instant teller kiosks.  

“You throw them a crumb every now and then and watch their reaction out of the corner of your eye while you keep moving,” Bidini writes. “Interaction is limited, but occasionally, lives intersect.”  

Bidini’s own life intersected with the homeless through a chance encounter with Street Soccer Canada, part of a soccer program run out of the John Innes Community Recreation Centre in downtown Toronto. Bidini had passed by the rundown intersection on many occasions, but one spring day he witnessed a group of seemingly listless men and women suddenly spring to life as a soccer practice commenced, “following the ball’s flight as if it were a great bird cruising above them.”

One of the players, Krystal Bell, was an 18-year-old runaway who’d left her adopted family in Kitchener to live a nomadic existence in the streets and parks and occasionally apartments of “creeps with a thing for sad girls.” Another team member, Billy Pagonis, had been a soccer pro before losing everything – family, friends, a successful business – to a pain-killer and cocaine addiction. But their adversities appeared momentarily swept away as Bidini watched the practice unfold.

“There, on the wet sod of the early May lawn, the players’ transformation seemed wild and real, and my longstanding belief in the magic of play and the redemptive properties of sport were confirmed.”

Bidini later accompanies the team to Melbourne, Australia for the 2008 Homeless World Cup of Soccer and what follows is a spirited series of misadventures, including a showdown with Russia and assorted injuries, relapses, tantrums, defections – in short, a microcosm of victory and defeat – on and off the field. I talked to Bidini about what it was like to work and travel in such close proximity to the players.

“These players were open books, which was one of the revelations,” he says. “How frank and honest they were about talking about their lives. You could sense that there was a sense of pride – or ownership – in talking about their lives, especially those who were in recovery.”

One of the pleasures of the book is that Bidini meets and talks, it seems, with players and coaches from virtually every country in the tournament, and they all open up to him about who they are and how they got there – a vivid, troubling, funny and diverse parade of characters.

There’s the tough-as-nails Scottish goaltender named Dove. And the Nigerian coach, a man who goes by many names (among them “Fatty” and “Chicken Baba”) who slyly reveals the secret of his success: each victory results in a bucket of chicken for the team. Or Homkant, team India’s goaltender and tallest player, who discovered soccer only after fleeing a suicide epidemic in the crushingly poor state of Maharashtra. Tad, a player on the American team, tells Bidini the story of his life – including the disconcerting and at times unaccountable events that befell him when he was released from jail:

“When I got out, I started using again, and I ended up in Colarado Springs weighing 85 pounds. I was cooking dope, slinging it. I graduated from cosmetology school, but I never went through with my state board approval. I went to deejay school, but they said I didn’t have the voice for it. I was strung out all the time and had all of my teeth pulled.”

As the book comes to a close, Team Canada does not win the 2008 Homeless World Cup; but it does walk away with the Fair Play Award, somehow a quintessentially Canadian victory in any international tournament. More to the point, each of the team’s key players – Billy, Crystal, and Jerry – are changed by the tournament and, as Bidini foreshadows earlier in the book, they are (even if only incrementally) redeemed and transformed. Home and Away is, if anything, a testament to the magic of play.

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