At Asmarat Youth Centre in south-east Cairo’s Al Mokattam district, 19-year-old Abdelrahman Yasser – known as Koko – is looking sweaty, dishevelled, and grinning from ear to ear after completing a kickboxing training session.
He stops by a football pitch to take a look at a group of young kids during practice and is immediately greeted and embraced by Mohamed Khedr Baydoun and Karim Hosny, the two coaches running the session.
The practice is one of many conducted over the past four months in Cairo, where children between the ages of 14 and 16 are training hard to be selected to represent Team Egypt at the Street Child World Cup in Qatar in October.
Koko was one of the lucky chosen ones that made the team that competed for Egypt in the Russia 2018 edition of the tournament, which has been held every four years on the sidelines of the Fifa World Cup since 2010.
Organised by Street Child United, a UK charity headquartered in London, the event came to life 12 years ago with the mission “to tackle the widespread stigma street-connected children face and raise awareness and understanding of their situation, so they are protected, respected and supported to realise their fullest potential”.
Egypt participated in the tournament for the first time in Brazil 2014 after Hosny learned about the initiative. He set his heart on forming a team from Cairo, his home city.
With the help of a small group of friends and colleagues, they all volunteered their time to work with local NGOs that house at-risk youth with previous experience of homelessness. They put together training sessions before selecting a team of nine boys that made the trip to Rio de Janeiro.
By the start of 2015, Hosny had co-founded a social enterprise called Nafas in order to “manage more sustainable and regular local and international programmes that empower youth through sport, including football”.
Under the Nafas umbrella, Hosny and his team expanded their operations, adding girls’ teams to their roster, and participating in more international events like the Homeless World Cup. They set up training sessions in multiple locations across Cairo and organised a Street Football League which featured 400 players from different backgrounds, institutions, homes and streets.
‘An inspirational experience’
In 2018, Egypt fielded a boys’ and girls’ team at the Street Child World Cup in Russia and Koko beams when he reflects on that experience, which saw the kids compete at Lokomotiv Moscow’s Sapsan Arena.
“I didn’t know what to expect before going there but it was such an inspirational experience all in all,” said Koko, who still resides and studies at Ana El Masry (I the Egyptian) Foundation, one of the institutions Nafas has worked with from the start.
“Having a goal in front of me and having to overcome the pressure and train hard to reach that goal and earn this beautiful opportunity of travelling to another country was amazing. It was a great opportunity, not just to travel, but also to represent Egypt in a competition.
“It was a very well-organised event. We got to meet a lot of people and made friends with the other teams. We were even facing a Russian team and the Russian spectators were cheering for us against their own side.”
In the four years since he returned from Russia, Koko has learned English and German at the school at Ana El Masry, and he recently took up kickboxing to improve his physical fitness.
“The experience taught me to take care of my health; it taught me to be ambitious and to set goals and to believe that the sky is the limit,” he said.
“It also shows you how important sport is, and as the saying goes, ‘a healthy mind resides in a healthy body’. You have to pay attention to your health and fitness and if it’s not football, you can practise another sport; there doesn’t have to be a trip abroad for you to be motivated to do sport.
“I just started training in kickboxing because I want to apply for military college; that’s one of my goals right now. If I don’t make it, I’d also want to apply for med school.”
Koko paid tribute to his former coach Baydoun, whom he refers to as ‘Captain Khedr’, and respects him for being hard on them during training and equally caring off the pitch.
As he was discussing his time training under Khedr, one of the young boys in practice dropped to the ground to do some push-ups, mid-game. “If you don’t score from a one-on-one opportunity with the ‘keeper, you have to do push-ups,” Khedr later said.
“You have to be determined, with Captain Khedr, there is no other way. Anyone that gives up or doesn’t keep at it, they will lose out on this opportunity,” said Koko as he watched on.
“Captain Khedr values two things: being strong physically and mentally, you have to have determination within you. You have to have a goal and have the confidence in yourself to achieve it.”
‘Food for the soul’
From the sidelines, it’s easy to pick up on the strong connection between Khedr, Hosny and the other coaches with the boys. They share a lot more than just football knowledge with the children and, with time, have managed to earn their trust.
Every practice has social workers from Ana El Masry present, to monitor the session and help the coaches with the children.
Hosny describes the social workers as “the anchor” of the project and says they refer to them anytime they need feedback on the boys, or if they want to work with them on something specific.
Mostafa Eissa, one of the social workers present at the practice, is particularly enthusiastic about the initiative.
“Sport fosters in these children the idea of setting goals and striving to reach them. Sport really is food for the soul,” Eissa said.
Khedr has been involved with the project since 2014 and is the head coach in charge of training for Qatar 2022.
“This project makes you feel like you’re serving the community in a good way. We try to instil certain qualities that can help them in the future, qualities they didn’t necessarily get the chance to be exposed to in the past because they were raised in a harsh environment,” he said.
He noticed early on how big of an influence he and the other coaches can have on the children, and wanted to make sure they passed on positive habits and ideas.
“We could see how their mindset was changing a bit from spending time with us; things as simple as starting to read a book or learning something new. It’s not about football, it’s football and more,” he added.
Khedr is playful and kind-hearted by nature, and said balancing that persona while remaining strict in practice is key.
“During practice, the number one rule is discipline. You have to do it in a way where you have two characters, one is on the pitch and the other is off the pitch,” he said.
“On the pitch you’re purely the coach, no jokes, it’s work, work, work. But off the pitch we’re friends. It’s very hard to separate both personas but you have to do it that way and it has worked well so far.
“The boys know that on the pitch we’re serious and off the pitch it can be different and that’s why we spend a lot of time communicating with them, before and after practice, during camps. That allows us to discuss things beyond football, we get to share with them stuff from our personal lives.
“I open up to them completely and I am happy to answer all their questions. When you open up to them in a genuine way, they in turn develop a genuine relationship with you and they open up to us. That’s how we build trust. There are several pillars you have to build: trust, loyalty, teamwork, good communication and support.”
Hosny has been the driving force behind the entire operation from the start and he is the first to note that the project is mutually beneficial, to them as coaches, as well as the children.
“It gives us a great sense of satisfaction,” he said.
He admits that at the beginning he had “utopian dreams” about the impact a trip like this could have on the young teens, but with time he found it important to note that while it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for almost everyone involved, it wasn’t life-changing.
“It’s just a trip and a positive experience that could benefit them going forward,” he said. “My hope is that it increases their confidence from the fact they were able to make a team and be part of a team and travel and meet people from all over the world and make friends from all over the world.
“Looking at Koko, the experience from Russia motivated him to learn English and now he can speak the language. It’s a good push in the middle of their life.
“You can teach everything through sport; discipline, teamwork, having a goal, winning. Just basically giving them a flavour of this environment, hoping that they will connect to bigger stuff is the effect we’ll have now. It’s a more mature expectation compared to the utopian dreams we had at the beginning.”
‘Getting us back to life’
Each edition of the Street Child World Cup has had its own flavour. For Hosny, Brazil was more emotional because it was the first time for him and the team to participate in the event.
“It was our dream,” he recalled with a smile. “It was the spark of all of this and will remain special for us.
“The one in Russia was very well-organised and was hosted at Lokomotiv Moscow; the team that won celebrated with an open-bus parade when they flew back home. It was really nice.
“The tournament in general is amazing. It’s a festival; you have 27 countries, people from all over the world, different organisations, all of which have a social objective.
“It’s very dynamic, it’s a big celebration. To be able to make it is a challenge for everyone, whether to train, whether to raise the money, so the feeling you get there is amazing. You know it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a lot of the people.”
He is now looking forward to taking the children to Doha, where there will be other Arab teams taking part for the first time – a Palestinian side from the West Bank and a Syrian one from a refugee camp in Turkey.
After Covid interrupted their operations for almost two years, the whole Nafas team is thrilled to get the ball rolling again.
“This tournament for us is about continuity and it’s getting us back to life. It’s giving our programme a second wind, on the ground and sponsors-wise and structure-wise as well,” Hosny said.
He plans to restart the Street Football League after they return from Qatar. The entire group that was first involved with the project eight years ago has reunited and they’re all keen to continue using the sport as a tool to empower at-risk youth.
One of the coaches, Hazem El Guindi, is back in the fold after missing out on the trip to Russia. He said he was tempted to return to the project after witnessing firsthand the impact the Brazil tournament had on the children. Eight years on, some of the players have now become coaches themselves, while others have picked up other jobs.
El Guindi feels he can help the programme beyond the trip to Qatar, using his experience in sports law to create a more sustainable project.
“As a lawyer, I’ve recently become heavily involved in sports law and have a much better understanding of the field and how sport is governed in the country, which can help us ensure there is continuity to this project and find ways to benefit these kids when they return from the World Cup, in a legal established entity or NGO,” El Guindi said.
“Setting up a league in the right way for example for these kids; I feel my experiences as a sports lawyer can help with that.”
The 2022 Street Child World Cup will take place from October 3–14 at Qatar Foundation’s Education City in Doha.
*To follow the journey or support Team Egypt at the Street Child World Cup in Qatar, visit Nafas’ Instagram page here.