A soccer ball sits on the sidewalk.
Photo courtesy of Loki Strike/unsplash.com

Plans to hold the 2005 Homeless World Cup Soccer tournament in New York City have been scraped by organizers due to federal government policies that would have likely barred players from entering the United States. 

The annual goodwill event, which has attracted large crowds of supportive fans as well as international media coverage over the past two years, has introduced homeless people from 18 countries to soccer and international competition in a weeklong event organizers call a “sports –integration initiative for homeless people.” 

The past two Homeless World Cup (HWC) tournaments, held in Austria in 2003 and Sweden in 2004, were successful events that attracted worldwide media attention from outlets including ESPN and HBO. 

Strong support existed in New York City for this year’s event, said Bernhard Wolf, one of the organizers, and an aide of Mayor Bloomberg confirmed the city’s desire to host the event. 

Following unsuccessful efforts to reach an agreement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on the issue of visas, however, organizers reluctantly decided to relocate the event outside the United States. 

“The fact is that the current legal situation around visa availability into the U.S. means that we cannot guarantee our people would be admitted for the week,” said Mel Young, president of the International Network of Street Papers (INSP), another one of the events organizers. 

“This poses an ethical problem for us, and it runs against the spirit of this tournament,” Young said. “Regretfully, we will have to move the 2005 Homeless World Cup.” 

The current plan is to hold the event in Edinburgh, Scotland, where the INSP is based. The problem, according to Wolf, is that U.S. immigration policy raises red flags about anyone deemed to have “insufficient ties to [his or her] mother country.” Visitors can be denied a visa if they do not have a residence or source of income in their native country. 

Visa Application Form 156 also states that “a visa may not be issues to persons who are within specific categories defined by law as inadmissible to the United States,” including anyone who suffered from a mental disorder, been arrested for any offense, abused drugs or engaged in prostitution. 

Many homeless people would fall into these categories, said Wolf. While organizers are accustomed to dealing with difficult cases involving international travel, Wolf said the obstacles were higher in coming to the United States. 

“We are facing some problems of bringing teams into a country,” he said. “What was different in the U.S. is that all participants, even from non-visa countries, would need to be screened at JFK airport for a temporary tourist visa, and all players could be asked about their background.” 

“If a HWC player would answer, ‘I’m homeless, living in shelter, playing in HWC,’ this would typically be grounds for refusal of entry to the U.S.,” Wolf added. 

According to Jeff Grunberg, executive director and editor of BIGnews, the New York City street paper acting as local organizer of the event, a waiver procedure is available within Y.S. law known as Humanitarian Parole, which might have allowed the international players to enter the country. 

The procedure allows for exceptions to the stated immigration policy, according to publi9shed statements by DHS. Wolf said such exceptions have been used, for example, to allow Fidel Castro to visit the United States or for other sports teams and humanitarian causes. 

“We talked first to May Bloomberg’s office, and in Washington Talking to [DHS] Secretary [Tom] Ridge’s assistant in D.C.,” he said. “We were told by our lawyers that we had reached the highest possible level of lobbying for the HWC. The result was only good will, but no essential steps in making the visa procedure easier for teams.” 

In New York, Grunberg still hopes the HWC can return to the United States in the future, but in the meantime BIGNews will hold a U.S. Tournament to decide what city will represent the sates. “Depending on the success of the BIGnews tournament, growth of sports programs around the country, and indication from our sponsors and supporters that there is renewed excitement for the event, we would consider bidding for the event again,” Grunberg added.