The stadium could hardly have been more rustic and the goalposts had simply been planted between their rugby equivalents, but the atmosphere was worthy of Ellis Park itself during Bafana Bafana's recent outings. Welcome to the sports field of Jepper Boys High School in Johannesburg, where the Youth African Soccer Cup took centre stage this Saturday. A kind of mini-CAF African Cup of Nations on a local scale, the competition brought together schools from various Johannesburg townships to defend the colours of 19 African countries – and the presence of special guest and project ambassador Didier Drogba ensured the day was as noisy as it was unforgettable.
The passion emanating from the stands was impressive to behold, with flags, excited cries, crowd chants and, of course, the inevitable vuvuzelas offering the full South African football experience. Naturally, the spectacle itself contained no Fernando Torres, Kaka or Teko Modise, but the players aged 15 or below lacked none of the hunger of their elders, and in some cases their technical skills were barely lagging those of their heroes. "In addition to the extraordinary atmosphere, the level is very good," Drogba told FIFA.com. "I'd have loved to put my boots on and played with them, but the most important thing wasn't to play; it was the reasons behind the initiative."
To relive the Youth African Soccer Cup,
click on the video in the column on the right.
The project was launched by the African Diaspora Forum in response to the tragic events that unfolded in South Africa last year, when tensions spilled over between locals and foreign residents, resulting in the deaths of over 60 people in Alexandra Township in east Johannesburg. That prompted the African Diaspora Forum, an organisation representing 30 foreign-resident associations, to mount a campaign against xenophobia in South Africa, and what better way to lead the fight than by educating the young via their favourite activity?
Hence the Youth African Soccer Cup, devised to help the children of Johannesburg discover other African countries and their cultures. Indeed, not only did each team take to the field to defend the colours of a continental neighbour, they had already spent months learning about that country at school. It was therefore no surprise to see South African youngsters recite the Tanzanian or Nigerian national anthems to perfection before their matches kicked off.
A midfielder for the school from Troyville, Nelo was representing Tanzania for the day and, despite being just 11, he was keenly aware of being involved in much more than a mere football tournament. "My parents are Ivorian and came to South Africa 15 years ago," he explained, moments before his side won the final in their age category against Nigeria. "They were very moved by what happened last year. Today, I feel Ivorian and South African and I've discovered a third culture. I feel Tanzanian and I'm very proud to represent this country."
Knowledge and study
Nelo clearly had much more to share on the subject, but he suddenly fell mysteriously silent, before bolting off towards the school entrance with hundreds of his peers. A rumour had swept through the venue that Didier Drogba was present and the whole school quickly sizzled with euphoria. Matches had to be interrupted and an informal press conference was staged in the centre circle as the Elephants' captain stepped on to the pitch to greet the young protagonists.
Having long been involved in promoting national reconciliation within his own country, the Chelsea striker rarely misses the chance to add his encouragement to events of this type. "What these children are doing is fantastic," he said, impressed by how seriously the youngsters were clearly taking the tournament. "It's through knowledge and study that these children will succeed in changing mentalities and do away with xenophobia."
Hanging on her idol's every word, and with South African and Cameroonian flags painted on either cheek, Marcy provided perhaps the perfect symbol of the coming together of cultures so crucial in the struggle against xenophobia. "I'm happy to have discovered a new country and its culture," she said. "For now, it's only been through football and what we've learnt at school, but one day I hope to be able to visit Abidjan." In all the excitement, Marcy seemed to have mixed Yaounde up with the former Ivorian capital, but it was easy to understand such oversights on a day charged with emotion and spent in the presence of Côte d'Ivoire's most famous face.
What mattered most was that the intended message had been conveyed. By opening their eyes to other cultures, these children have started to close the door on xenophobia.