KHAYELITSHA, South Africa (Reuters) - On a brand-new soccer field in South Africa’s second-largest township, teenage boys and girls kick balls and run round hurdles in games soccer authorities hope will help them avoid the scourge of AIDS.
The center, officially launched by soccer’s world governing body FIFA on Saturday, is the first of 20 “Football for Hope” hubs to be formed across Africa, meant to use the power of football to help children overcome the continent’s multitude of social problems.
“There is no need to play football... if you don’t do anything for the health of the young people,” FIFA President Sepp Blatter said at Saturday’s ceremony.
Six of the centers will be in South Africa, the host of next year’s World Cup, the rest across the continent.
In Mali and Ghana, they will focus on anti-discrimination, in Rwanda on the building of peace after a devastating genocide in 1994, in Kenya on the environment and health, and in Namibia on social integration.
In Khayelitsha, the center will be managed by Grassroot Soccer, an organization founded by former professional football players from neighboring Zimbabwe.
“We have lost many friends to HIV/AIDS back in Zimbabwe and we know how much it has devastated the society there and how no one was talking about it and realized what a powerful tool football could be,” said the organization’s managing director, Kirk Friedrich.
Grassroot Soccer trains coaches, many of them also young people, and in addition to combating AIDS, tries to improve underprivileged children’s self-confidence and give them access to resources that will help them get out of the slums.
Children will come to the center three times a week to take part in games and drills meant to help them understand the risk of HIV in South Africa, where more than five million people are estimated to be infected with the virus.
“The center can take many children out of the streets and lead them to something else than drugs and prostitution ... it gives us an opportunity and one day we might even make it,” said Yonela Mapasa, a 14-year-old girl from the area who hopes to become a doctor.
The games are meant to teach responsible behavior. In the “Risk Field” activity, children dribble between cones representing risks like unsafe sex or multiple partners.
If a player hits a cone, he or she gets a red card, supposed to signify zero tolerance, and has to do press ups to be allowed back into the game.
In Khayelitsha, 40 percent of the 1.2 million population are estimated to be younger than 19, and unemployment in the area reaches highs of 60-65 percent.
More than a sports facility, the center is meant to become a community hub, and provide alternatives to crime, violence and drugs for the township’s kids.
“Many people here would end up in shabeens (drinking dens), or rob others as there is nothing else to do... and rape and HIV are also very common, but I believe that this can help us change that,” said 25-year-old Azola Maliti, one of the coaches.
Helen Zille, premier of the Western Cape province, said Khayelitsha was chosen for the first center because of lack of services in the area, flooded by masses of people who came to the huge shack settlement close to Cape Town searching for work.
For the first time FIFA has partnered the umbrella organization streetfootballworld to use the World Cup — the globe’s most watched sporting event — to promote the projects via a festival running alongside the tournament.
Reporting by Agnieszka Flak; Editing by Barry Moody