(Street) football is coming home.

That’s right, the beautiful game is returning to Graz in Austria 15 years on from the first Homeless World Cup.

Football really is coming home.

No, not that one – street football is returning to Graz today. No longer mainly famous for being the birthplace of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian city was the host of the first Homeless World Cup back in 2003 when 12 teams kicked off a tournament that has grown to be a 64-side phenomenon.

This week the European Street Football Festival sees the beautiful game return to Graz’s main square with 14 teams representing 11 European nations taking to the pitch. England have sent over a men’s squad to pit their skills against sides from Germany, Slovenia and the Czech Republic as well as two Austrian squads.

Image: @melyoung53.

As for the women’s competition, Wales are also competing with Bulgaria, Belgium, and Greece.

The week-long event will mark the culmination of the Homeless World Cup Foundation’s Erasmus+ Project – a three-year team-up with the European Commission to improve links between homeless football associations across the continent.

Returning to the pitch will bring back memories for Keri Harris, the Street Football Wales founder and former The Big Issue Cymru regional manager, who organised the Welsh side for the inaugural tournament 15 years ago.

Speaking to the Homeless World Cup Foundation, he said: “After a few weeks of promoting the idea around hostels with my partner in crime Jan Collard, we started a weekly training session with about nine players. It was crazy. We were training with new players every week as we lost so many throughout the process due to their personal issues.”

Keri faces an uphill task just to get his team there, losing their best player three days before the event and then their goalkeeper the following day. But after scraping together six players, he has built the Street Football Wales to a more organised outfit off the back of that tournament – and is now excited to return.

“I’m so excited to be going back to Graz,” he said. “I have such fond memories of the city, the people and also the tournament. For me, it is going to be quite emotional because the Graz 2003 changed not only the players’ lives, it also changed mine. To be going back with a women’s team is also extra special, as we have worked so hard over the past few years to build our female programme.

Watch the European Street Football Festival here.

The above article by Liam Geraghty first published on bigissue.com in Jul, 2018.