Grassroot Soccer: Football's Fight Against Aids
© FIFA.com

The Isaac Booi School is a plain, brick-lined, double storey building in the township of Zwide, in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. It is just after one o'clock in the afternoon, classes are over and yet the playground is still buzzing with activity. Sticking out of the crowd of children in maroon-coloured uniforms are a few young people in bright yellow T-shirts. They are coaches from Grassroot Soccer, a programme teaching young learners about soccer and HIV/Aids prevention.

Director Kirk Friedrich started Grassroot Soccer in Zimbabwe in 2002, after several of his friends and fellow soccer players died of Aids. "The idea was to develop a curriculum for HIV/AIDS education, based on games. Soccer attracts kids and the message from the game can easily be transferred to life," says Kirk.

The programme combines social theory, public health methodologies, rigorous evaluation and a huge dose of passion. "We trained professional players to teach awareness about the disease and the need for prevention. At the same time the trainers are role models for the children, which is a very powerful concept when it comes to behaviour change."

After the evaluation of the pilot project in Zimbabwe and making a few adjustments to the curriculum, the model was expanded to other countries. South Africa has a total population prevalence rate of just over 11 per cent, the death rate due to HIV/AIDS in areas such as Zwide in Port Elizabeth reaches almost 40 per cent. Since March 2006, Grassroot Soccer has plugged in with existing education and after-school programmes and has recruited and trained approximately 100 people as coaches on the curriculum, reaching 3,000 school children to date.

Excitement is dancing in the air as the children stand gathered in a circle, hands tightly held together, enthusiasm and concentration etched on their little faces, unified and ready for their 'energiser'. Led by the trainers they are chanting and clapping a simple rhythm: "Siyahamba - we are going!"

"With the energiser we get them in the mood for action," explains Siyavuya Ntabeni, 23, one of the 13 project co-ordinators, before he invites the group to the next game, which is called 'Find the ball'. The youngsters stand shoulder to shoulder in two lines, facing each other. Siyavuya introduces the HIV/AIDS ball, a tennis ball that he hands to the first team who are passing it behind their backs, trying to attract no attention to the person who actually holds the ball. The opposite team starts guessing and invariably fail. Sixteen pairs of eyes are resting on Siyavuya when he explains the key message behind the game: "You cannot tell if someone has HIV/AIDS just by looking at him or her, just like you cannot see who is holding the ball behind his or her back. You only know your status if you go for a test!"

Stigma is one of the biggest problems in the community. "If you have the disease, the community looks down on you," he says. Grassroot Soccer focuses on addressing taboos and increasing the kids' knowledge on HIV/AIDS from an early age. The atmosphere is playful yet disciplined; experiencing structured learning through actively participating in sport is a new experience for the children. "Before a new group starts with the eight-week programme, we sign a contract with them. We discuss the meaning of our key values which are to respect each other, feel comfortable about what we do, participate in the activities and share our experiences," Siyavuya explains.

'Using the Power of Soccer in the fight against HIV/AIDS' is written on the back of his t-shirt. Grassroot Soccer is much more than just kicking balls around the pitch. It's the image of the sport; its ability to create connections between people; the magic of the game; that attracts the children to the programme. And with South Africa building up to the FIFA World Cup in 2010, the awareness of soccer among the kids is even greater than ever.

"Football is a universal language, it appeals to both men and women of all ages and it's easy," says Siyavuya. "You don't need lots of resources to play football as long as you've got something to kick around. Besides, kids like the idea of being part of a team and they understand the language of football. That's why we use an assortment of analogies in our teaching."

Kirk works closely with Football for Hope, a global movement launched by FIFA and streetfootballworld dedicated to promoting development through football worldwide and contributing to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). He said: "Having FIFA's support is immensely helpful for Grassroot Soccer as it not only helps us improve our programmes but also adds a quality seal to our efforts and recognition of the work that we do."

One of the 200 kids currently with Grassroot Soccer in Zwide is Lungi. A tiny 12-year-old girl, Lungi has lost her parents to AIDS and is being raised by her sister and extended family. "The Grassroot Soccer programme teaches me to be strong and to know that I am not the only one that has lost parents to HIV," she says poignantly. "My favourite game is the one called 'choices', teaching us about making our own choices. There are things you can choose and things you can avoid."

Lungi joined the Grassroot Soccer street league in July. The league gathers twice a week at the Imbewu multi sport courts and is open to youngsters between 10 and 18. Siyavuya, who introduced her to Grassroot Soccer, sees Lungi as a very receptive learner. "She can achieve the best in life and be a role model for others," he says.

In July, when Grassroot Soccer youngsters were selected as the 22 player escorts for the '90 minutes for Mandela' special FIFA match honouring Nelson Mandela's 89th birthday, Lungi was one of lucky children selected. She walked onto the pitch with none other than the legendary Pele. A shy smile crosses on her face when she recalls the evening, as if walking next to the king of football is nothing to be especially proud of. For her it's perhaps a fairly small achievement, compared to what she had to cope with already in her very short years. "I've been through a lot," she says, her face becoming serious. "Grassroot Soccer helps me to get on with life. It makes me ready for life."

"Lungi is a strong character because she grew up without parents," says Siyavuya. "The programme has taught her that there are always parents around you, even if they are not your own."

Nearby to the Isaac Booi School is the Dora Nginza Hospital, a large complex at the edge of Zwide township. Dr Mlulami Mabandla is the Chief Medical Officer at the Children's Clinic at Dora Nginza, the province's forerunning clinic in the supply of Anti Retrovirals (ARV). Dr Mabandla sees, on average, between 30 to 40 HIV positive children daily. He is encouraged by the progress that the clinic has made. "We currently manage to get most of the people who need ARVs on to them," he explains. "Prevention is what we are behind in." He sees the success behind Grassroot Soccer in the action-driven curriculum. "Children don't like to be dictated to. They respond better to an informal situation, where the education is brought about as a game."

And while the country is gearing up for the FIFA World Cup™ in 2010, Kirk, Siyavuya and the rest of the Grassroot Soccer team are working towards sharing their football-based curriculum with more organisations, to reach as many children as they can. In a 2006 study on the demographic impact of HIV/Aids in South Africa, the Cape Town Centre for Actuarial Research projected that the number of people infected with HIV in 2010 will be just above 5.8 million out of an estimated population of 49 million people.

As Lungi pointed out: in life, there are things you can choose and things you can avoid. Football is helping young South Africans to make the right choices.