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  • on 29.10.2009
  • at 06:52 PM
  • by Staff

Harnessing the World Cup to change children’s lives 0

On a dusty sports field in Alexandra township more than a hundred excited children laugh and shout as they kick around footballs, sing, and play games that teach them about the dangers of AIDS.

The boys and girls, ranging from tiny tots in oversize shorts to hefty teenagers, belong to one of the many projects all over the world that are using the huge power of football to help underprivileged children overcome social problems.

Soccer’s ruling body will use next year’s World Cup for the first time to promote these projects through a “Football for Hope” festival running alongside the soccer extravaganza, which attracts the world’s biggest cumulative television audience.

Fifa has combined with the global NGO streetfootballworld to create Football for Hope and the kids in the sprawling Johannesburg township of Alexandra belong to one of its members, Play Soccer, which trains hundreds of children twice a week.

The Football for Hope festival will take place in the second half of the month-long World Cup, which starts next June 11, in a 3,000-seat stadium yet to be built next to this sports field. Some 32 organisations from around the world — the same number of nations as in the World Cup — have been chosen to take part, based not on their football prowess but on the success of projects to address social issues like homelessness in London, landmines in Cambodia, gang violence in Colombia and South Africa’s scourge of AIDS.

“The idea is we show the power of soccer to achieve social change, while the eyes of the world are on South Africa,” said Football for Hope Communications Manager Mike Geddes.

He said Alexandra had been chosen as festival hosts partly to counter the bad reputation it suffered last year when the township was badly hit by a wave of xenophobic attacks in which more than 60 people died around South African cities.

Enthusiasm

Geddes and Play Soccer’s South Africa director, Sibu Sibaka, make no bones about the strategy of enticing children in with football, the world’s most popular game, and then using their enthusiasm to teach vital survival skills.

“Football is not just nice for the kids, but crucial,” Geddes told Reuters.

The Football for Hope movement, which has more than 80 members, “Uses football to teach kids life skills. It could be anything from why it is important to brush your teeth to safe sex and avoiding HIV and AIDS,” he added.

“It uses the fact that kids are motivated, engaged and inspired by the power of football to teach them these very important education messages.”

And the kids are certainly not objecting, clearly enjoying the health and social lessons as well as the football, taught by young volunteers from Alexandra with plenty of their own street cred and lashings of infectious motivation.

Everybody is aware of the benefits of getting young people off the mean streets of Alexandra, in a country with one of the world’s highest rates of murder and rape.

“Children have an opportunity now to come down and get involved in the programme instead of having a lot of time to do other things that may not be right,” said Sikhumbuzo Mnculwane, a community relations officer with Football for Hope.

Safe sex

One of the games played in South Africa is called Risk Field. Children dribble between cones representing risks like unsafe sex or multiple partners. If a player hits a cone he or she has to do press ups and if it happens again the whole team has to join in.

He acknowledged some initial scepticism about such a system after the aggression of real football, but said he had seen it work. Points are also awarded for fair play.

“As it goes on through the week, the teams become more used to it, more used to respect from their opponents and resolving things through dialogue,” Geddes said.

It is financed by various donors, including private companies, UNICEF and the German aid organisation GTZ. Sibaca said that although it was difficult to quantify how much the programme had weaned children away from crime, many of the players came from troubled homes.

“These kids will play soccer until there is no light on the streets and we figure let’s provide a safe environment for them to do exactly that but teach them a thing or two in the process that will help them for life,” she said.

By SA Good News

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