Thursday 22 March 2018, 07:15

From living rough to the World Cup: Fara Williams' story

  • Fara Williams is England's most capped player

  • She has reached the top despite finding herself homeless as a teenager

  • Williams told her story to FIFA 1904 Magazine

Slipping into a national jersey is still a very special moment for Fara Williams, even if she has done it dozens of times now. England's most-capped player has played more than 150 games for the Lionesses, but every time she steps on to the pitch to play for her country it still feels like the first time for this 34-year-old veteran.

She grew up with her mother, her sister and two brothers, all of them passionate Chelsea fans. Football has been an important part of Fara Williams’ life ever since she was little. Watching her favourite team play was part of her everyday life, just like breakfast in the morning or going to school. When she was 12, she started playing for Chelsea; it was a dream come true. “It’s still one of the most unforgettable moments of my career,” she recalls. It was also the first step towards the national team, which she would later help shape.

For Williams, the national jersey represented much more than just a sporting achievement. For a long time, it was her lifeline, which she focused all her energy on. Although Williams’ football star is now shining brightly, the journey to get here was far from straightforward.

Williams was homeless for more than six years. She was performing at the highest level for her club and national team and put on a brave face, but she was struggling with her personal problems. Her estrangement from her family meant that she left her home in Battersea, London, when she was 17 years old and made her own way in the city, sleeping rough here or there come rain or shine.

She remembers how hard being homeless hit her. She remembers, too, how she would try and act as mad as possible to intimidate people and stop them from coming close to her. She would turn as she walked and make loud noises so that people would leave her alone. How did she manage not to lose sight of her future while she was struggling for survival? “I handled my situation of being homeless pretty easily,” she says with a bit of distance. “I had football to focus on. I wanted to represent my country and I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way.”

But she couldn’t tell her friends and team-mates. “I never showed any weakness,” she says. The reasons for that were numerous. She was ashamed and did not want to be judged because of her situation. Very few people knew what had happened to her. But one of them was Rachel Brown, whom she shared a room with during national team duty. “She was the most supportive, positive person I could have wished for,” enthuses Williams. Another was Hope Powell, her coach when she played for the England U-19s, who suspected something. She dug a little deeper and took Williams to a homeless unit. It was something Williams would not have had the courage to do alone. While she was there, Powell gave her a sleeping bag; that gesture made her feel a little bit protected.

In 2004, she moved from Charlton Athletic to Everton, which changed her life. Mo Marley, the Everton coach, took her under her wing and got her a job as a coach. As a result, Williams was able to get back on her feet and finally get a break in football.

Glory in Canada Williams played at the Olympic Games in 2012, qualified for the final of the European Championship with the England team in 2009 (which they lost 6-2 to Germany) and came third in the 2015 World Cup. She is England’s top scorer in World Cup matches with five goals and has also won the League Cup and the FA Women’s Cup with Everton.

She has also made up with her mother. “She [my mother] always put others first," Williams explains. "She was hard-working and juggling many jobs and therefore she was the best role model I could have had.” The worst thing for Williams was being separated from her family for so long, even if she did not respond to their attempts to get in touch with her straight away. “I allowed my stubbornness and independence to get the better of me. Maybe I could have recovered my life a lot earlier than I did.”

Still, all’s well that ends well, at least for Fara Williams. Her ties to her family are strong again. When she scored against Switzerland in the 50th minute in a qualifier for the 2011 World Cup, it was an opportunity for her to re-establish communication with her mother who was celebrating her 50th birthday just a couple of days later. Williams found a way to escape homelessness and managed to return to leading a conventional life. But she has not forgotten her time on the streets, or the fact that there are a lot of people who are in the same situation she was in but who do not have football to hold on to. She wants to carry on helping those people and acting as a role model.

If Williams had to describe herself and her life now, what words would she use? “Loyal and bubbly,” she says, proudly looking at national jerseys that tell more than just the story of the time they were worn.