New York's skyline is more than a world away from the dry dusty fields where the children of Africa learn valuable lessons for life through the fun of chasing a football into the sunset. Yet that image, of the first world reaching out to clasp hands of common humanity with the developing world, is a crucial link in the flourishing Play Soccer development chain.
Judy McPherson is the energetic founder who provides the New York link following her many years of working around the world for UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund. Her experience in the financial directorate meant she knew well the challenge of bringing humanitarian support to areas of the world whose need far outstrips the comprehension of even the most inquiring minds in the world's affluent nations.
But McPherson had also learned, during a five-year stint in France, about the community-uniting importance of football, or 'soccer' in American parlance. A son had played football there at lower league level and McPherson recalled the lessons of shared goals on and off the pitch when she realised that young children in the most disadvantaged areas of the world needed an opportunity to learn life skills to build their future.
"A development agency like UNICEF has an important role globally but ordinary members of society at a micro-level can be extremely effective," she says. "Football is fun, low-lost and effective way of mobilising communities. Play Soccer is a recreational programme open to everyone, starting with young children for early engagement and education, and particularly encouraging the participation of girls."
McPherson's regularly travels to see at first-hand the fruits of her work and to see that the programmes are in good shape both in terms of organisation and finance.
Play Soccer has been, thus far, about Africa and Asia rather than the Americas. It is a nine-year-old, non-profit-making network which proclaims its ambition as providing "an international programme for health, education and the social and physical development of children and youth through community-based soccer activities."
That may sound like a marketing pitch but nothing could be further from the truth. Play Soccer, incorporated in New Jersey, USA in 1999, began its first programme in Ghana two years later. It is all about volunteer work at community level and constructive interaction with other administrative and sports-based organisations.
Team work is the key.
Thus far McPherson has seen her concept taken up in practical terms on behalf of children aged between five and 14 in Cameroon, Ghana, Malawi, Senegal, South Africa and Zambia. Community projects are overseen by a national Play Soccer board and these are linked by the main board - also made up of volunteer directors - out of the US.
Play Soccer's volunteers concentrate on teaching football to both boys and girls as a means to not only inculcate football skills but to address issues of health and social education. As McPherson says: "Our aim is a holistic approach. Soccer is such a great medium for development because it cuts so easily across all the socio-economic levels."
Health education includes awareness of nutrition, personal hygiene, importance of clean water, sanitation and how to restrict the spread of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria; social education focuses on teamwork, peaceful solutions to disputes, fair play, respect for others and interdependence.
A focal point for the young
Mamadou Samb, programme director in Senegal, says: "If children here aren't part of our Play Soccer programme, what are they going to do? Left to their own devices and with too much time on their hands, they are going to hang around the streets and, when that happens, anything can happen next."
The success of the programme is evidenced by the way in which many of the volunteers benefit almost as much as the children.
One such grateful volunteer is Gloria Mofokeng, a Play Soccer instructor at Finetown in South Africa. She says: "Play Soccer is very important to me. It came along when I had lost a lot of faith in life. It has brought back my own skills and self-confidence. I have realised the joy it brings me spiritually.
"You know, we always thought that our neighbourhood was isolated and neglected. However, I saw this as a good opportunity to work with kids be a role model to them. Sometimes, this is the only place they find happiness outside their homes, where there's love. I want to set a good example so that, in years to come, they may look back and say I played a positive role in their life. That's my mission."
Play Soccer was one of the first partners involved in the practical implementation of FIFA's Football for Hope programme. Now its network reaches more than 10,000 children and requests for expansion having been received from elsewhere in Africa as well as from Asia, Central America and the Caribbean.
The most disadvantaged communities
Funds are raised from international agencies, from national and local governments and from sports bodies including FIFA. The most disadvantaged communities in an area are identified, local interest is engaged and enrolment for the children begins.
A so-called "jump grant" from headquarters provides each local programme with the initial cost of volunteers' basic training plus the basic materials which include T-shirts, balls, training cones and so on.
Senegal is just one of the countries in which the model is alive and well and working just as the international Play Soccer 'umbrella' would wish. The local volunteers cannot provide guarantees for the children growing up in the programme but they can hope.
As Samb, project director in Senegal, says: "The future of the children who go through the programmes is somewhat hypothetical. No-one knows what the future holds but, if they are lucky enough to become involved in Play Soccer or a similar programme then at least we can guarantee them one thing: the right to education, the right to self development, the right to play - all the rights listed by UNICEF.We try to grant them all these rights as well as the right to a healthy living standard with the help of our volunteers."
It is too late now to hope that the Play Soccer scheme in South Africa will turn up a potential superstar who can lead Bafana Bafana's ambition of making a big impression when the country hosts in 2010, for the first time in Africa, the FIFA World Cup™.
But the scheme's progression was evidenced by the involvement in the local board of Pitso Mosimane, a member of the national team's coaching staff.
Play Soccer has set an ambitious target budget of US$1.2m to cover both its short-term aims for 2008 and longer-term projects.
McPherson acknowledges that: "We constantly find ourselves running behind our aspirations. Our goals and the demand for the Play soccer programme far exceed our means to achive them" And she adds: "But Play Soccer works hard to develop local staff and volunteers. And self-help at a local level means that countries are growing their own resources, which will build and sustain the programmes in the long run."