For many youths in Africa's most populous country a new street football program called Search and Groom, in partnership with FIFA, is making an escape from poverty through football more than just a pipedream.

Nigeria is a football-mad nation - the game permeates the country like virtually no other place in the world. The dream of making it as a player is a life raft for may Nigerians who tread the turbulent waters of poverty, unemployment and homelessness. In the capital of Lagos, however, FIFA Football for Hope Implementing Partner Search and Groom is harnessing Nigeria's passion for the game to help young people improve their lives regardless of their talent on the pitch.

A Street Soccer showdown
From 12 to 15 July, Search and Groom hosted the Street Soccer League Cup, a four-day tournament bringing together 16 teams from across Lagos and beyond. The event, supported within the framework of FIFA's Football for Hope movement, combined a five-a-side tournament for mixed teams with workshops on a variety of Nigeria's most pressing social issues, including the spread of HIV/AIDS and the lack of employment and educational opportunities for the young. Matches were held in a mini-pitch stadium with seating for 1,000 spectators and were followed avidly by local school children invited to take in the spectacular skills on offer. The teams were drawn from four of Lagos' poorest areas with a special representative from Nigeria's far north.

The tournament built on the success of last year's Free Kick event, also a recipient of Football for Hope funding. However, this year the tournament was expanded and improved, attracting local celebrities and former stars of the Nigerian national team. They encouraged the players to pursue their dreams and congratulated them on their commitment to their own personal development.

Stars of Ajegunle
Between matches, two of the tournament's shining stars took time out to speak with Simon Okwori and Nimikimi Macintosh are teammates on the side representing what is considered to be Lagos' toughest borough - Ajegunle. "We are like brothers," Simon grins, "in fact, people often mix us up and call me Macintosh". The two, sitting in the shade of a pavilion away from the wild commentary that accompanies each match, reflect on the importance of Search and Groom in their lives.

"Our lives have changed for the better," remarks Simon, as Nimikimi nods in agreement. The two friends have been playing football together in Ajegunle since they were children and have been involved with Search and Groom since its inception in 2003.

Both Simon and Nimikimi have overcome incredible hurdles growing up in Lagos. Nimikimi, 19, was born in the metropolis but his family moved back to Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta when he was thirteen. Since then he has been on his own, either sleeping at friends' houses or squatting on the floor of the barbershop where he works. The money he earns cutting hair is just enough to keep him afloat.

Simon, 20, was born in Benue State and moved to Lagos with his family when he was a child. The twelve members of his family live in a one-room flat in Ajegunle, surviving largely on his father's small army pension. "Sometimes it is so crowded that I go and sleep where Nimikimi is staying to get some peace and quiet," says Simon.

Simon and Nimikimi both share the dream of making it to Europe as professional footballers. Yet they also understand the dangers: "There has to be something after football - that is a lesson that we have learned through Search and Groom," Simon concedes.

Grandfather's advice
One person has been particularly important in communicating this message. Joseph Erico is considered the grandfather of Nigerian football. A former goalkeeper for Nigeria's national team in the 1970s, he then served on the coaching staff for the U-23 team and the Super Eagles during appearances at the 2000 Olympics and 2002 FIFA World Cup respectively. Now he volunteers his time as coach for Search and Groom. "Anything that involves kids is something that I support," he said. "Search and Groom not only provides them opportunities to express themselves on the pitch but also to ensure they take responsibility for their lives."

Erico has been coaching the two players for the past four years and both of them are grateful for his advice. "He has been a big influence on us and we are proud to be able to play under a former national team coach," states Simon. As for the future, "no matter what happens, we will always return to Ajegunle to help other youngsters who love the game of football. That is our dream," says Simon. "We have become role models in Ajegunle," reflects Nimikimi, who has given up several opportunities to play professionally in Lagos so that he can stay involved with Search and Groom.

Life in Lagos
The positive outlook of both young men is remarkable, given the problems they are confronted with on a daily basis. Simon dropped out of school at the age of seventeen. He now supplements his family's income by producing and selling artwork and hopes to continue his education as a graphic artist. Many of his pictures have been produced using charcoal, an appropriate medium for his depictions of the hard struggle of Nigeria's lower classes.

Nimikimi's situation is yet more precarious. Without family support in Lagos, he was forced to drop out of school and work for his survival. With no formal secondary education, his prospects of finding a decent job are slim. Despite the hardships, he remains committed to building a life in his neighbourhood. Through Search and Groom he has twice travelled abroad, to Kenya and South Africa, but sees no reason to abandon Ajegunle. "We love our home and we are proud to be Nigerians," he states unequivocally.

Reunion via Radio
In a curious twist of football fate, Nimikimi's trip to South Africa in 2006 brought his family back into his life. In September of last year he was a member of the Search and Groom team at the Homeless World Cup in Cape Town. His mother, listening in Nigeria's eastern Delta, heard her son's name on the radio during coverage of the tournament. Contact was re-established between mother and son and, after seven years of separation, Nimikimi visited his family in eastern Nigeria. Since the reunion, Nimikimi's older brothers have taken it upon themselves to help support their younger sibling. The thought of moving out to the delta, however, was quickly dismissed. "There is no Search and Groom there" explained Nimikimi.

This year's Street Soccer League Cup raised considerable media interest in Nigeria. The activities of Search and Groom in the field of "Development through Football" remain unique in Africa's most populous nation but the idea of using football to help young people reach their goals in life is catching on quickly. Search and Groom Project Director Yomi Kuku is already looking to the future: "We are confident that next year's tournament will be even bigger and better!"

Simon and Nimikimi's team from Ajegunle finished third in the inaugural Street Soccer League Cup. Nimikimi was crowned Player of the Tournament, impressing the crowds and fellow players alike with his touch and vision. Both players are looking forward to the year ahead with Search and Groom - and maybe to the title in 2008!