Soccer players from 18 countries kicked off a world cup of a different kind in southern Austria: All the players are homeless.
Organizers hope the tournament, which began Monday, can spark positive changes in the players' lives -- and in society's perception of them.
"It's about people who are homeless realizing they have potential," said organizer Mel Young, president of the International Network of Street Papers. "It's about inclusion -- including homeless people in society. We are always looking for new ways of including homeless people."
One player, Marcus Stevenson, a 23-year-old center-right midfielder on the British team, recently began sharing an apartment in West London after living in homeless hostels for a year and a half. Using his newfound confidence, he plans to start studying when he returns to England after the tournament.
"It's just helped me a lot," Stevenson said about the Homeless Soccer World Cup. "It gave me motivation. I realized that if I could get up and go to training, I could get up and get a job or go to school.''
The weeklong street soccer tournament is being played on two squares in central Graz. Each team has three field players and one goalie on the court, and each game lasts 14 minutes in the qualifying rounds; 20 and 30 minutes in the placement rounds.
The small courts make for quick, intensive play, making ball control important. That could mean a disadvantage for the US team, which includes many players new to the sport.
But coach Stephanie Quinn, 28, said the team still had good chances to advance to the placement round.
"It'll be tough," she conceded. The US plays in Group B, which includes Spain, Sweden, Slovakia and Switzerland.
No matter the result, though, the participation has changed many team members' lives. All players are now in the process of getting housing, she said.
"It teaches them that if they work hard for something, they will achieve something positive," she said.
The tournament is also about changing society's perception of the homeless.
``People don't really think homeless people are human beings and need things like this, and I disagree,'' Quinn said.
For the moment, 18-year-old Triton McEwan is staying with his sister in New York, but he's hoping to move into a place of his own in about five months. He's been homeless on and off for a year.
"My mother was a single mother. We got evicted and we went our separate ways," he said. "I was 16."
After joining the US team, McEwan was spotted by a modeling agency and now does tuxedo shows.
But it's not all success stories. Three players were sent back to Sweden even before they played their first match because they went drinking.
Their team voted to send them home because they broke rules, said Emil Sernbo, the editor of Faktum, the Gothenburg-based homeless newspaper sponsoring the Swedish team.
"The pressure was too large, and these three weren't able to take it," he said.
The team had seven remaining players, and regardless of the tournament outcome, all were winners, Sernbo said.
"For me, it's a gigantic win just to be here," he said.
The tournament was organized by Young's network of newspapers, the Austrian branch of the charity Caritas, and a Graz homeless street paper. Costs are shared by sponsors, the provincial government and the city of Graz, which this year is Europe's culture capital, and the organizers pay for food and housing in a boarding school.