How football is improving the lives of Denmark's homeless

Two men playing football Image copyright Malcolm Brabant
Image caption Playing football has a wide range of benefits

A project in Denmark is encouraging homeless people to get off the streets and onto the football pitch - with dramatic results.

The coin is tossed. In just a few seconds the game kicks off. While running up and down the field, trying to score a goal and defend their own, Marco Glentvor and Peter Fromm sweat for their health.

They say football has changed their lives.

In Denmark, scientists have found that football can significantly improve the health of homeless and other socially disadvantaged groups.

"If I hadn't started playing football, I would either be dead or half dead," says Marco Glentvor, who admits that he used to live on the street and "take all the drugs I could get."

"My behaviour has improved," says Peter Fromm. "On the street, I could come out with some aggression. But when I'm playing a match my mood is fantastic".

Both men have been monitored closely by Prof Peter Krustrup, a sports and health specialist from Copenhagen University.

"The most important finding is that street football is a feasible, fun and social way to improve the physical capacity and health profile of homeless men," says Prof Krustrup after watching a training session in a graffiti decorated hall in an former Copenhagen brewery.

Image copyright Malcolm Brabant
Image caption Peter Fromm, goalkeeper of Denmark's national homeless football team, says: "It's an honour to represent my country"

The strenuous physical nature of this game helps to start the process of purging narcotics from their bodies.

Peer pressure of team sport generates the determination that they need to stay out of the streets and transform their lives with this programme.

After just 12 weeks of training, the physical condition and capacity of 39-year-old Marco had significantly improved.

He has reduced his level of LDL or "bad" cholesterol by 19%, increased his muscle mass by 2.4kg (5.2lbs) and has been assessed as having reduced his risk of developing a heart disease by at least 50%.

Building self-esteem

Image copyright Malcolm Brabant
Image caption Marco Glentvor lights a candle in the Copenhagen church where he works as a clerk

These statistics are important because the life of homeless male means they die 20 years before the average Danish male and are five times more likely to be hospitalised with traumatic injuries as the result of falls and fractures.

"When I started on the (football) project, I got a lot of energy. It opened some doors and all of the sudden I thought I wanted to have goals in life," recalls Marco.

"Now, I just want to live. I want to make it better for myself. It was a hard struggle but I'm here today."

He now has a steady job as a clerk in a Copenhagen church.

Peter Fromm, a 34, is the goalkeeper of the Denmark's national homeless football team. He claims that football cured his addiction and took him out of the streets when other traditional rehabilitation methods failed.

"There's a lot of social networking with people who are on the same road as me to stay away from substances. It gives me some stability and helps me to build my self-esteem."

Image copyright Malcolm Brabant
Image caption Football has psychological benefits according to Thomas Hye

There's no doubt in the mind of Thomas Hye, founder of Ombold, a street football association that organises games, that this sport also has psychological benefits.

Currently, 20% of Denmark's 5.000 homeless take part in his event.

Mr Hye says: "It's about joy and to be part of something together with other people. And losing without losing your head and feeling happy because you score a goal, and try to do better next time.

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Media captionFootball can help improve the life expectancy of socially disadvantaged groups

"Some of our players have anger management problems; they have a lot of conflicts with society.

"On the pitch they might think the referee is an idiot, but in football they learn they can cope with things.

"Football helps people to more than they think they can do. It helps people get off drugs because of the adrenaline in the body."

'Easy solution'

Mr Hye and Prof Krustrup belief that other countries should establish football leagues for people who live on the streets.

"Society has got a responsibility towards the homeless and socially disadvantaged," says Prof Krustrup.

"And football is an easy solution. All you need is a ball and two goals. The effects are rapid and marked in relation to health profile and well-being."

Prof Krustrup has carried out similar studies on other social groups, such as the elderly and has concluded that football is perhaps the best form of physical activity of all.

His advice is to stop watching the game on television and to get out and play.

Image copyright Malcolm Brabant
Image caption 'I love football', declares Katava as she sips on a beer

Another group who play regularly is a team of Greenlandic women who spend much of their days outside the Sundholm hostel in Copenhagen's Amager district.

They spend no more than half an hour on the pitch. But their joy for participating is transparent. No incentives are required to induce them to put down the beer cans.

At the end of the session they spontaneously break into a chant of 'Sundholm United.'

"I love football," says Katava as a smile breaks across her deeply lined face. And then she catches the bus back 'home'.

Around 20% of all those who join Denmark's street football league drop out.

The beautiful game doesn't always save, but at least it gets some of the rebounds.