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A World Cup for the homeless

The 2014 World Cup is set to kick off in Brazil in less than two weeks, and people from all over the globe will come together to watch elite athletes during the monthlong event.

But on the other side of the continent, in Santiago, Chile, a different kind of World Cup will be taking place in October.

The Homeless World Cup uses the power of soccer to help homeless people transform their lives and change how homelessness is viewed all over the world.

Anthony Epes traveled to previous Homeless World Cups - in Mexico City in 2012 and Poznan, Poland, in 2013 - to photograph players during those tournaments. His images depict men and women, young and old, all shapes and sizes. But they have one thing in common: They are all homeless.

“I have a lot of people say, ‘They don’t look homeless,’ ” Epes said. “But as Mel Young, founder of the (Homeless World Cup), would say, ‘What does a homeless person look like?’ The players don’t come to the games to look homeless. They come as footballers ready to play for their country.”

People from more than 70 countries come together through local grass-roots programs that are designed to give homeless people an outlet.

The tournament celebrates the year-round work of the Homeless World Cup organization and creates an opportunity for players to represent their country and meet and build relationships with homeless people from other countries.

Initially, Epes tried to photograph players individually. But once word got out about his project, players, coaches and managers were lining up for him.
“There was a lot of love going around, and it was an amazing time,” he said. “A player can only play for one tournament, but I saw many return to Poznan as coaches, teaching what they learned with the new players.”

Epes also saw how transformative soccer was for these people. He said the intensity and variety of the tournament experience helps people return to their countries with the desire to better their situation.

“There are many wonderful people out there helping these players find street soccer organizations that give them not just soccer, but a desire to be part of something bigger than themselves,” he said. “That is a huge boost to one’s ego and is not easily forgotten.”

The homeless players aren’t forgotten after the tournament either. Local charities work with the players to provide them with professional services that can help them find education and employment and even health care and legal advice.

Epes hopes his photos stir deep emotions in those who might normally look past someone who is homeless.
“I want people to look at the images and feel the dignity and pride that the players bring to the games,” he said. “If a viewer looks into the eyes of my subjects, they will see staring back at them not a homeless person, but someone who is bettering themselves, for themselves and those they love.”

- Larry Frum, Special to CNN