It’s been a significant period of time for women’s football and for Street Soccer Northern Ireland’s player Louise, the opportunity to represent Team Northern Ireland at the Street Soccer Nations Cup will be uplifting.
“After this summer, women’s football feels like it’s progressed a lot. With Northern Ireland taking part at their first major tournament, we’ve moved away from our sport being stigmatised” said Louise.
“The make-up of most of the NI are amateur players, some work in supermarkets, some are nurses. They’re role models now. When I was younger, as a girl you didn’t have anyone to look up to, so knowing the younger generation have that now is very exciting. We know now, going on to that pitch, that it’s just as much of our game and it’s not just a men’s sport.”
Louise will be stepping on to the pitch as the captain of Team Northern Ireland for the second consecutive year, after leading out her team at the Homeless World Cup’s Four Nations event in Edinburgh last September. She believes that experience will be invaluable as she approaches this year’s tournament in Dundee.
“I will be more confident at this tournament, especially knowing that I have that role within my team to support others. I will feel more confident about doing it, even with players from others nations. I think it’s going to be a new experience, one that I am more prepared for but equally excited for.”
Louise was homeless for three years and found a Street Soccer flyer in a homeless family hostel in 2018. She visited a session the following day, despite never having ever played much football but highlights that her engagement with the programme has been life-changing.
“Since first joining, I’ve never looked back. They really look after you and the welcome and praise you receive is amazing. I never had much confidence before I joined and I have seen a massive change in myself since starting.
I was a bit cautious to begin with as most of the players were a bit younger than me, but I get on with them all very well. Most of the players come to me for advice or a wee chat. That gives me confidence. I know that if anyone has a problem, maybe if they feel too embarrassed or ashamed to tell Street Soccer, they can come to me, as they have in the past. It’s like I’ve got my own wee role in the team.”
Through training with Street Soccer twice a week and building a solid support network, Louise believes she is in a much happier place. She describes being part of the Four Nations event last years as ‘the best experience ever’.
“Even if I am having a bad day myself, or not feeling myself on the run up to it. I can drag myself out of it knowing I have training. The fact the players know they can come to me for a chat, makes me feel a lot better. It gives me the platform to express myself. I’m very big on routine, and Street Soccer can support that. If I had nothing to do, I could easily sit about all day in pyjamas but knowing I have training, lifts me. I get more done knowing that it’s round the corner.
The whole experience of the Home Nations tournament in Edinburgh was surreal. Going and meeting so many different people was amazing. We all got on all so well. Everyone clicked right away and it was like we’d be friends for years. All four nations spoke as if they were all one group rather than four cliques. It was probably the best experience I’ve ever had.”
With four additional nations entering the Street Soccer Nations Cup, Louise highlights how this will be a different experience that she’s relishing. She underlines that the players last year clicked due to an understanding of the challenges that many had shared and that with players coming from further afield this time around, it will be important to find out how they can relate to one another.
“I’m looking forward to learning more about players from different cultures. I love to meet new people and I think environments like that can be very educational. The fact we have all experienced some challenges, that level of trust was already there. It’s like a community and it means you don’t have to fear any judgement. We’re all the same. We can share our stories, and that’s been big for me. It makes me feel a lot better and it’s good to learn about others. You can come away from those experiences and feel like ‘I’m not the only person.’”
After achieving so much with Street Soccer Northern Ireland, Louise found a home directly after last years event, ending her spell in homelessness. She emphasises the fact that sport can change lives and hopes that the Street Soccer Nations Cup can do the same for players across the event.
“I’m looking forward to achieving more this year. All the Street Soccer programmes help players feel like they can do more. Being part of a team is so important and I am excited to open up ours when we get to Dundee.”
The Street Soccer Nations Cup is taking place from Friday 9th September to Sunday 11th September on City Square in Dundee and is free to attend. You can find out more about it here.