The unveiling of the Football For Hope Centre at Khayelitsha in the outskirts of Cape Town on Saturday marked the start of the Official Campaign of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, which the game’s governing body will be overseeing through the Football For Hope Movement. was at the ceremony and spoke to some of the folks involved.

Among those present was the 15-year-old Issac, who lists his footballing heroes as Cristiano Ronaldo and Teko Modise and lives in Khayelitsha, South Africa’s second-largest township behind Soweto. Home is a little shack, where he lives with his four brothers and sisters and his father. There is no mention of his mother. Isaac is just one of the many teenagers who have been turning up at the Football For Hope Centre, which is managed by the South African-based non-profit organisation Grassroot Soccer.

Two hundred thousand people in four different areas of Khayelitsha are going to benefit from this new Centre, which FIFA has made possible. It is an investment for the future.

Dan Plato, mayor of Cape Town

“We have an average of 300 children come to the Centre every day and we also go out to around 15 schools in the surrounding area,” explains Kirk Friedrich, the manager and co-founder of the organisation. “We run eight sessions for children between the ages of 12 and 15. These sessions form part of the school syllabus and we get just as many girls taking part as boys.” 

Grassroot Soccer’s goal is to use the sport of football to educate children about the dangers of the HIV virus. “Our organisation believes in the power of football to fight against HIV,” he continues. “We use the language, metaphors and the stars of the game to teach children, and we speak to them about the best way to protect themselves against AIDS. It’s a programme that aims to change the way they behave.”

Covering an area of 47km², Khayelitsha is an endless labyrinth of ramshackle huts and is home to some 1.2 million people, 40 per cent of them under the age of 20. The township’s fast-increasing population rate brings with it a host of problems for its inhabitants.

“Cape Town suffered an awful lot of racial oppression in the past and the legacy is that even now there are many, many people who have been unable to enjoy the benefits of recent economic growth,” explained Dan Plato, the Mayor of Cape Town, at the opening of the Centre. “We cannot sort this problem out on our own, which is why the support of the Football For Hope Movement is important. Two hundred thousand people in four different areas of Khayelitsha are going to benefit from this new Centre, which FIFA has made possible. It is an investment for the future.”

The Khayelitsha centre is the first to open as part of the 20 Centres for 2010 initiative. In its capacity as the Official Campaign of South Africa 2010, this ambitious programme aims to harness the power of football and help bring about social change through the construction of 20 Football for Hope centres across Africa. Activities at each of these centres will focus on areas such as public health, education and football.

“The games are really cool,” says Isaac, who dreams of playing for Real Madrid or Barcelona one day, and is still a little starstruck after having his cap signed by former Bafana Bafana skipper Lucas Radebe. “It’s great to be able to play and learn things about the HIV virus. I’ve learned that if you take risks, you can get AIDS very quickly, and I’ve also learned that you shouldn’t reject people suffering from the disease.”

Also in attendance at the event was FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter, who unveiled a plaque and spoke of the importance of the occasion. “This is a historic moment,” he announced. “For a very long time now we have been speaking about the World Cup bequeathing a legacy for Africa, about new stadiums, training grounds, telecommunications systems and transport resources and infrastructures. All that is fantastic but it is still not enough. We also need to make a social contribution. I am very proud that we have finally stopped talking and have taken action. This first Football For Hope Centre is proof of that.”

“Me, I’ve told my friends to protect themselves against AIDS and I’ve also told the people in my community, so that we can stop the virus from spreading and prevent them from rejecting AIDS sufferers,” adds Isaac. That is the ultimate objective of Grassroot Soccer, to get children to pass the message on to the generations coming behind them.

Problems to address
Football for Hope ambassador Dr Gabriele Princess Inaara the Begum Aga Khan expressed what the Centre is hoping to achieve. “We all saw the passion for football come through in the Draw, but there have been a lot of tragedies in this country, with many children dying of AIDS. They are our children and they deserve better. They deserve to be fit and healthy and receive a good education. This is the very role of this Football For Hope Centre and it is for this reason that I am very proud to be its ambassador. This is only a start, however, and other centres will follow.”

To date nearly 300,000 African children have taken part in programmes organised by Grassroot Soccer, and an indication of the organisation’s reach and success. “We want to show that football can help combat the virus, that’s all,” comments Friedrich. “And it’s working. The figures are there for all to see. Over the last three to five years in Zimbabwe we have witnessed real changes in sexual behaviour, which is really very encouraging.”

Encouraging it may be, but there is still a huge amount of work to be done. Figures for 2008 show that some 28 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are suffering from the virus, illustrating the need for more centres, more organisations and more education.

“I’d like to go to the USA when I’m older,” says Isaac. “In fact I’d like to travel throughout the whole world and meet the stars.” Thanks to initiatives like this, the young missionary might just see his dream come true one day.