peddling new hope

New York's skyscraper skyline is more than one world away from the dry dusty fields where the children of Africa learn valuable lessons of life through the fun of chasing a football into the sunset.

New York's skyscraper skyline is more than one world away from the dry dusty fields where the children of Africa learn valuable lessons of 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.

Play Soccer, incorporated in New Jersey in the US in 1999, began its first programme in Ghana two years later. It is about volunteer work at community level and constructive interaction with other administrative and sports-based organisations.

Judy McPherson is the energetic founder of Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund. Her experience in the financial directorate meant she knew the challenge of bringing humanitarian support to areas of the world with needs that far outstrip the comprehension of even the most inquiring minds in the world's affluent nations.

But McPherson had also learnt during a five-year period in France, about the community-uniting importance of football, or "soccer" in American parlance.

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-cost and an effective way of mobilising communities. Play Soccer is a recreational programme open to everyone, starting with young children for early engagement and education, particularly encouraging the participation of girls."

McPherson regularly travels to see first-hand the fruits of her work and that the programmes are in good shape both in terms of organisation and finance.

The organisation has been in existence for the past nine years, is a non-profit-making network that proclaims its ambition as providing "an international programme for health, education and the social and physical development of children through community-based soccer activities."

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 from the US.

Play Soccer volunteers concentrate on teaching football to boys and girls as a means to not only instill 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, how to restrict the spread of HIV-Aids, tuberculosis, malaria and social education focusing on teamwork, peaceful solutions to disputes, fair play, respect for others and interdependence.

Mamadou Samb, programme director in Senegal, says, "If children aren't part of our Play Soccer programme, what are they going to do? With too much time on their hands, they are going to hang around the streets, and when that happens, anything can occur next."

The success of the programme is evident 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, South Africa, she says, "Play Soccer is very important to me. It came along when I lost faith in life. It has brought back my own skills and self-confidence. I realised the joy it brings me spiritually.

"We always thought that our neighbourhood was isolated and neglected. However, I saw this as a good opportunity to work with kids and be a role model to them.

"Sometimes, this is the only place they find happiness and love outside their homes. 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 10000 children and requests for expansion have been received from elsewhere in Africa as well as from Asia, Central America and the Caribbean.

Funds are raised from international agencies, national and local governments and 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 that include T-shirts, balls, training cones and so on.

Senegal is just one of the countries in which the model is alive and working just as the international Play Soccer umbrella wishes. The local volunteers cannot provide guarantees for the children growing up in the programme, but can only hope for the best.

Samb, the 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."