Northern Ireland suffered their first defeat of the Homeless World Cup in Glasgow on Wednesday afternoon as they went down narrowly to Chile, amongst the favourites for the tournament, 5-4 in a thrilling encounter.
The Northern Irish nevertheless came back strongly in the following two matches with a 7-5 win over Street Soccer United (a select side made up of refugees living in Scotland) and a 6-1 defeat of India.
For Coach Aidan Byrne, the competition to date has been an outstanding success - as has Northern Ireland’s performances to date.
“The tournament so far has been absolutely amazing - the boys have played brilliantly. We’ve a really strong team, a great unit throughout the team and they’re enjoying the whole experience.
“We got off to a stunning start with a 10-3 defeat of Holland. I thought we deserved to beat Romania (a 5-5 draw, lost in the penalty shoot-out). I thought we were the better side. We were proud of the lads, they played brilliantly.
“We knew before the Italy game that if we won we would go through, second in the group - and we beat them comprehensively. We’ve never finished second in the group in previous years.
“We lost one game because Nigeria withdrew - and that was a shame because it would have kept the momentum going - but the guys are full of energy and passion. We’re getting stronger and stronger as the tournament goes on.
“Our Coach is Terry Moore - who played for Larne Glentoran and is an ex-International player for Canada.”
Aidan outlined the history behind his involvement in street soccer and his mission to improve the lot of the homeless of the country.
“I’m the co-founder of Street Soccer Northern Ireland, myself and Justin McMinn. WE were working in East Belfast Mission for Homeless People. We saw that football could play a part in helping people to break out of homelessness. That was the beginning of it about six years ago - and now we have projects across Belfast, Londonderry and Dungannon. We have five-a-side Leagues and an eleven-a-side team. The football gives them hope - we teach them the benefits of physical health, mental health and motivation. We also give the guys help around housing and employability, helping them to make lasting change in their lives. Of last year’s team of eight seven of them now have a house of their own and five are in full-time employment.
“Last year we received £73,000 from the Housing Executive - and that’s allowed us to bring our projects across Northern ireland. Next year we’re hoping to be in places like Ballymena, Lisburn, Bangor, and Coleraine - basically anywhere there’s a problem with homelessness, It gives young guys the benefit of playing football.”
Byrne remained optimistic that his side can progress much further in the competition.
“If the lads keep playing the way they have been they’ll certainly improve their world ranking of 24th. We could go far in this tournament. We’ve a brilliant team and the attitude of the players has been first-class.”
Currently lying second in Group B of the Second Stage with six points from three games, two adrift of leaders Hungary, two games remain - one of which against the group leaders themselves offers Northern Ireland the chance to overtake the Eastern Europeans.
The other remaining tie?
That as it happens is against the Republic of Ireland who have secured five points from their three fixtures - a comprehensive 10-3 win over United and two penalty shoot-out defeats following 3-3 and 6-6 draws with Hungary and Chile respectively.