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Football rounds up poor SAfrican youngsters

28 October 2009 07:00

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AFP) - The small girl zigzags between plastic cones with a football, hardly obstructed by her pink tulle dress as she attempts to master the game, and life lessons from her coach.

As Sinethemba, 6, grasps football skills with other children, their trainers impart crucial points that range from the importance of a healthy diet to the dangers of unprotected sex for the varying ages from five to 15 years old.

South Africa has been seized by football fever ahead of the 2010 World Cup, and FIFA is making the most of a sport loved by children to attract them into the "Football for Hope" programme in the country's poorest townships.

Every Monday after school, children in the heart of Johannesburg's oldest shantytown Alexandra, take part in the unconventional training where the message includes boys being encouraged to respect their female partners.

This is a crucial message in South Africa where a quarter of men admit to having raped at least once in their lifetime, according to a study done in August.

"If a father at home is sexually abusing a little girl she's got to be able to stand up for herself and say I was taught on the field today you're not supposed to do that. You're my father and I respect you but no, this is my body," said Sibulele Sibaca, the Programme Director of Play Soccer SA.

Coach Catherine Khosana, an 18-year old who is herself still in high school, said the goal was to keep children off the street while teaching them to respect each other and take care of themselves.

"For cultural reasons, we had to convince the parents that it will be in the benefit of their daughters ... we told them it is not for soccer only, it is about how to have a healthy lifestyle."

To illustrate her point, the volunteer coach shows her training manual. Each illustrated exercise is accompanied by a paragraph on its purpose: promoting a healthy diet, highlighting the dangers of tobacco or alcohol and the fight against AIDS.

Since 2005, FIFA has supported dozens of projects like this around the world through "Football for Hope" but for the first time it is casting the spotlight on its work at the World Cup.

The programme will culminate in its own World Cup with 32 teams from deprived areas coming to compete from five continents.

Players from Palestine and Israel have teamed up and may meet Rwanda's team which mixes Hutu and Tutsi - who fought each other in the devastating civil war in the early 90s.

The aim, according to Federico Addiechi of FIFA's social responsibility department, is to "use football for a greater cause".

"Children adore football, it is easy to have them in a regular programme," he emphasized in an interview with AFP.

"But their coaches aren't just their coaches, they give education on peace, gender equality, health issues..."

Sinethambe may be too young to play in the tournament, but this hasn't dampened her enthusiasm for the game.

"They teach us to play the ball... One day, I would like to be one of the Banyana Banyana," she said excitedly of her aspirations to join the national woman's soccer side.

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