Homeless find their game

Hannah Taylor, 10, plays soccer Monday with Elliott 'Twiggy' Clow, who will play for Canada at the...

Hannah Taylor, 10, plays soccer Monday with Elliott 'Twiggy' Clow, who will play for Canada at the Homeless World Cup in South Africa in September. (Toronto Sun/Fred Thornhill)

MIKE STROBEL -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:22 AM ET

Sherbourne and Queen. Cheque day.

Drop a little monthly government moolah around here and the sidewalks and parks buzz with raggedy life.

Death is nearby, too. I don't just mean the slow death of easy drugs and hard living.

Over there, at the Moss Park diamond, down the first-base line, Paul Croutch was beaten to a pulp on his usual bench, a year ago tomorrow.

Three reservists from the nearby armoury are to stand trial for second-degree murder.

But street life drums on. Not a seat to be had on the ledge in front of the John Innes Rec Centre. Folks shuffle across the park, to and from surrounding shelters.

Strange place to find a 10-year-old girl with braces and pigtails.

I have written of Hannah Taylor before. Cute as a bug. Sharp as a tack. Quick with a hug.

We will all work for her someday.

Her Ladybug Foundation has raised a million bucks for the homeless (ladybugfoundation.ca).

NATIONAL TEAM

She is here on holidays from Winnipeg, but has stopped by Moss Park to wish our national team bon voyage before the Homeless World Cup in South Africa Sept. 23-30.

Yes, we have such a team.

O Canada

Our homeless and ...

Five of the eight players are from Toronto. Two have made this workout.

One has a date with his probation officer. (Ola, Maradona?)

One has family problems. (Becks, that you?)

One was last seen waltzing down Yonge St. near Bloor, more or less toward Seaton House, where he sleeps. A loose cannon. (Et toi, Zidane?) Maybe cheque day got him.

Which leaves speedy Sugar Ray Louison, 32, and goalie Elliott "Twiggy" Clow, 30.

So practice consists of horsing around with Hannah. Gingerly. She broke her foot playing soccer in her kitchen.

Meantime, I schmooze with manager Paul Gregory and coach Daniel Copto. Gregory, 40, a social worker in Guelph. Copto, 42, is an addiction counsellor, which may come in handy on the flight to Cape Town.

En route to our first Cup, Sweden in '04, a player dubbed Rubber Man for his agility heard strange voices on the plane.

Last year, with the Cup in Scotland, an ex-heroin junkie left his methadone at home to avoid customs hassles.

The upside? Rubber Man, who lived in a bush in Peel for some 16 years, now lives in a shack in a bush in Peel.

Hey, one step at a time.

Even better, the junkie quit methadone for good, touch wood.

That is the point, says Paul Gregory, who got us into the Cup in its second year and who deserves a medal.

"Work in shelters long enough and you see how alienated and isolated these guys get," he tells me.

"When they play soccer, they forget about all the rest and have a sense of what they can do."

Forty-eight countries will be at this Cup, up from 27 last year. Italy is two-time defending champ.

Funny thing, five African squads were barred from playing in Edinburgh last year. Customs officials, missing the point, decided they were too poor.

By the by, this is street soccer. Three players, a goalie. Four subs changing on the fly.

Canada is a sleeper, after hitting bottom, so to speak, the last two years when teams were thrown together last-minute.

For sure they'll fare better than our other national men's soccer team. The one with homes.

(Twiggy and Sugar Ray recently got their own digs. Rules say you must have been homeless sometime in the past year.)

The Toronto guys have waged soccer war at John Innes all summer in a league among half a dozen shelters. The Good Shepherd, Queen and Parliament, is current champ.

They sweated out a lot of poisons, a lot of crap.

"I'd be smoking drugs right now if it wasn't for this," Twiggy Clow tells me.

Not that big-league soccer players and drugs have never met.

"The difference," muses Twiggy, "is that they have the money for it."

Ah, yes, money. How, you ask, can a motley crew of footballers spring for a week in sunny South Africa?

Well, they are still $4,000 short. Paul Gregory and a new partner in Calgary are hitting on corporate sponsors.

After they get to Cape Town, though, it won't cost a dime. Nike and UEFA are sponsors.

Guess where Homeless Team Canada will stay.

The Ritz.


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