The Football for Hope center is out to teach kids about more than just the “beautiful game.”
The first of 20 such centers across Africa was opened Saturday, a day after the draw for next year’s World Cup, and 12-year-old Lihle Bonkolo was one of the children that learned about both football and how to combat AIDS.
Playing a game known as “Risk Field,” teams dribbled a football around a series of obstacles marked with AIDS-related signs. If they hit a cone, they got a red card and had to do sit-ups.
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“It’s a good game. It teaches you a lot,” said Bonkolo, who was wearing large yellow T-shirt and got to be teammates with former South Africa international Lucas Radebe. “Soccer is a good way to learn because it is fun.”
The game was played on shiny green artificial turf, making a sharp contrast to the surrounding gray shanties perched on the sandy dunes of Khayelitsha, a sprawling slum on the outskirts of Cape Town.
The project is part of FIFA’s “20 Centers for 2010” campaign to build facilities to help young people in Africa. The next five centers will be built in Kenya, Namibia, Mali, Rwanda and Ghana.
“This center will use people’s passion for football to transform communities and to provide hope and opportunities for young people,” FIFA president Sepp Blatter said at the opening. “Many years from now people will still be benefiting from this and the other centers.”
The center will be managed by Grassroot Soccer, an organization founded by professional football players from neighboring Zimbabwe. It hopes to tap into Africa’s love for football to educate young people about HIV and AIDS.
Bonkolo, who wants to be scientist, said he has learned a lot about the disease which affects an estimated 5.7 million people in South Africa, more than any other country.
“I have learnt that you must love and play with a person with HIV and not discriminate against them,” he said with a serious look on his face.
AIDS is just one of the battles many of South Africa’s poor black youth face. Poor schooling and high unemployment leaves them with little hope for the future.
“This is a magnificent project,” Radebe said as he signed T-shirts for the children. “Youngsters face a terrible future. Football can give them the opportunity to learn, to empower themselves.”
Grassroot Soccer has reached more than 13,000 children in 13 African countries and organizers say youngsters who go through their program are less likely to engage in risky behavior. They also become more understanding toward those with the disease.
“It teaches them to bounce back from their experiences,” said Gcina Mondi, one of the coaches. “I feel like there is hope.”
Khayelitsha is about 15 minutes from central Cape Town, where the World Cup draw was held Friday in a glittering ceremony featuring celebrities such as David Beckham and South African-born Oscar winning actress Charlize Theron.
But from the tumble of crumbling brick homes and corrugated iron shacks in Khayelitsha, there is no view of the swanky new stadium being built with panoramic views of the Atlantic coastline and the iconic Table Mountain.
Princess Mbatsa lives a few houses away from the new center, which has been built on stretch of ground that had been a wasteland used by local criminals.
Until this year, the 53-year-old Mbatsa had been unemployed and unable to feed the seven grandchildren she looks after.
Today she is employed as a community guard who keeps an eye on the center and ensures it is kept safe and not vandalized.
“I think the World Cup will change my life and my children’s lives,” she said, “and my country.”