Wrightson (on the right) with fellow Sacramento State alumni Tiffany Fraser. Image: Sacramento State/Hrach Avetisyan
Lisa Wrightson once dreamed of being a professional footballer – but when the Homeless World Cup rolls into her home city of Sacramento it will be the culmination of an altogether different journey with the sport. Wrightson represented the USA at the Homeless World Cup in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in 2010 and has since played a leading role in taking teams to subsequent tournaments and running coaching programmes in Sacramento through Street Soccer USA.
When the teams walk out for the tournament where Wrightson previously studied at Sacramento State University’s Hornet Stadium, it will be a chance for reflection on a life almost ended by addiction and transformed by the redemption of the Homeless World Cup.
“I think it will be a bit surreal,” Wrightson tells The Big Issue. “For me, even being an athlete at Sac State I didn’t leave on great terms. So coming back in a positive way is kind of overwhelming. It’s exciting. I feel like we’re giving something to the city that has been life-giving to me.”
Wrightson pushed to reach the professional women’s soccer league in America while studying in Sacramento but ultimately didn’t make the cut, while the league folded – sending the sport into semi-professional wilderness.
With the loss of a daily routine built around training and teamwork, the lack of a goal in her life led her down a dark path.
“I got discouraged and isolated and got into drugs and alcohol to fill that void that I was not prepared for. It caught up with me,” says Wrightson. “I went from drinking to a lot of painkillers then escalating to methamphetamine.
“By the last time I got arrested in 2009 I was using methamphetamines pretty heavily and it was destroying my life very quickly. I didn’t have a job any more. I didn’t have any hope of playing, I had quit on that dream. And it’s like: I’m going to die if I don’t get sober.”
Wrightson was able to get out of jail on the condition she went to rehab for 90 days to get sober – a prospect she says “terrified her”.
That led to a move into supported housing where she was first connected to Street Soccer USA. Initially she didn’t want to get involved, her first attempt at reaching football’s elite had not ended well. But she was convinced to go to a training session and it was not what she expected.
“It was messy, silly soccer that made me really happy. I also knew how to play so I think that gave me a little bit of value that I was missing, like they saw me as someone who had something to offer.”
Wrightson was invited to a Street Soccer USA tournament where she starred and earned a nomination for the 2010 Homeless World Cup in Brazil.
“The experience was just mind-blowing for me,” says Wrightson. “The other women nominated for the US team didn’t really come from a background of soccer. Soccer had become their lifeline. I was happy and I was healthy and it was just so inspiring and fulfilling.”
When she returned to the US, Wrightson had a new goal: to experience more of what she had felt at the Homeless World Cup and to share it with as many others as possible.
Wrightson started working with partner Tiffany Fraser to set up women’s coaching programmes in Sacramento, and she was the US coach at the following year’s tournament in Paris.
Now managing director of the Sacramento chapter of Street Soccer USA, the 42-year-old is preparing to welcome athletes from all over the world for this year’s tournament after a four-year Covid-enforced break since Cardiff in 2019. It comes at a time when Sacramento’s own homelessness issues need it too.
“It’s just been getting progressively worse over the last 10 years and Covid really exacerbated it,” says Wrightson.
“It’s been a really hot topic. It’s one thing that everybody is affected by and nobody really can figure out how to solve it entirely by themselves.
“So the timing of the Homeless World Cup comes when there is a need to change the attitude or perception or show some success stories. I think we’re pretty desperate for that.”
American sport fans love winners and competition – Wrightson was the same – and while medals and trophies are up for grabs at the tournament, the real prize comes in community and positive change. That’s a lesson that has transformed Wrightson’s view of football and the world.
“I think I landed in a better place because even when I was playing with the mindset of being pro, I don’t know if I was always happy. I always felt like I was racing a clock,” says Wrightson. “But at Street Soccer USA I get to feel the things that drew me to the game as a kid. I love that it’s about more than being a professional soccer player, it’s about using the game as a space to be the best version of yourself.”
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