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Homeless To Represent U.S. In Soccer In Austria


April 26, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

The soccer team, a set of scruffy, middle-age men with hardened faces, filed into Baruch College's aging sixth-floor gymnasium in Midtown Manhattan.

The coach, Stephanie Quinn, arrived with fresh T-shirts, new soccer balls and a pep talk for the big tournament this summer. She set up two goals: a pair of cones on one side of the gym and a raggedy net on the other, and started a four-on-four scrimmage. As play intensified, any trace of reticence in these men gave way to competitiveness and a youthful sense of purpose.

The players are homeless men, living on the street or in shelters. And this summer, their team will represent the United States at the Homeless Street Soccer World Championship, in Graz, Austria.

The New York team was formed last year by Ron Grunberg, an outreach worker for the the Grand Central Neighborhood Social Services Corporation.

Mr. Grunberg, who edits a New York street newspaper called Big News, learned of the event at a convention last year for the International Network of Street Papers, a tournament sponsor.

"Some Austrians suggested we get a team together in New York and I immediately laughed it off," he recalled. "It isn't exactly in our budget to take a soccer team to Austria."

But they told Mr. Grunberg that in Europe, more homeless outreach organizations were using competitive soccer to help people turn their lives around by first luring them onto the soccer field and then into social services and shelters. Plus, they said, all expenses in Austria would be covered by the tournament committee.

So in the fall, Mr. Grunberg began holding weekly practices at a field downtown, "next to the biggest food line in the city," he said. Players drifted over and soon there were a dozen regulars.

He began soliciting donations and corporate sponsors. The MetroStars professional soccer team has donated equipment. Now, Mr. Grunberg is trying to raise money for the airfare to the weeklong tournament, which begins July 5 and will include 20 teams from around the world.

There is an amazing type of team spirit on the squad, which includes former professional players and others who can barely play. Most players tell poignant stories of their decline into homelessness.

Jose Riofrio, 41, played in a semiprofessional soccer league in Peru, he said, before immigrating to New Jersey. He lost his job, car and family to cocaine and alcohol and spent years on the streets. A Bronx detoxification center has him sober and studying and playing soccer at Hostos Community College in the Bronx.

Harold Arroyo, 42, is a hulking man who continuously cheers, teases and berates his teammates as he tends goal. Mr. Arroyo represented Puerto Rico as a super heavyweight boxer in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.

After serving in the Army, he became a chef but was fired after hitting a co-worker. He began a downward spiral, became homeless three years ago and now lives in a veterans' residence in Queens.

Jeff Rubin was a subway motorman whose life turned dark after a pretty young woman jumped in front of his train.

"I was pulling into the station and she was blowing kisses to me on the platform," he said, standing on the sidelines of the gym. "Then she jumped in front of the train."

That was his last day of work. He spent his savings traveling around the world for two years trying to forget the kiss-throwing woman. He has lost touch with his wife and his two children on Long Island and still wakes up screaming in a shelter on the Bowery. Playing on the team makes him think of his son, who he started on soccer.

"He must be 17 now," he said, staring off. "Maybe he still plays. If only I could bring him here with me."

Mr. Rubin joined the team after seeing the program advertised on a flier at the St. Francis Xavier soup kitchen on West 15th Street.

"I came because I thought it said they were going to Australia," he said with a disappointed look. "I've already been to Austria."

New York City has a large pool of players to choose from. It has perhaps the world's largest homeless population, and homeless advocates say that its street population is on the rise.

Street soccer salvation is popular in Europe.

Bernard Wolf, 37, a member of the tournament's organization committee and an editor at a street newspaper in Graz, said that Austria had held a national homeless soccer championship for several years and created the world championship to show other countries how to "give their homeless back their social respect and dignity through the power of football."

The games will be held in the city's main square and the players will stay in a tent village in the courtyard of a grammar school. The winning team will split a purse of about $1,000 and defend its title the next year.

Back at the gym, Mr. Grunberg was focused on his players.

"We're looking for positive, dedicated people, not ringers," he said. "We're not going to show up at the drop-in center with plane tickets and say, `Who wants to go to Europe?'

"Each team plays 20 games there. I'll be happy if we win one."

But Harris Pankin, 42, a homeless man who was once a punk rock singer in the East Village, disagreed.

"Hey," he said, "I ain't going there to lose."

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