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JUNE 16, 2010

Africa Dispatch: Soccer Is a Goal In South Africa By JOHN W. MILLER

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South African youths play soccer in New Brighton township.

John W. Miller

NEW BRIGHTON, South Africa—In this soccer-mad country, kids of every social class dream of joining "Bafana Bafana," the South African national team that has assumed god-like status here during the World Cup. But in the country's townships, a lack of coaches, facilities and visibility is handicapping their development. South Africa has 900 registered clubs for 4.5 million players of all ages, a ratio of one to 5,000, compared with 42,490 clubs for 4.2 million players in England, a ratio of 1 to 99, according to FIFA, the sport's organizing body. "The spirit and talent are always there in the townships," says Ben Thorburn, a retired South African professional player who runs the Cape Town-based African Brothers soccer academy, which offers scholarships to low-income prospects and raises funds to certify more coaches and leagues. "But there's so much lacking in terms of funding, for the facilities and the number of good coaches."

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Even at its best, youth soccer in the townships is lacking in things that kids in other countries take for granted, such as decent fields and parental support. A typical league, say organizers, is the one in New Brighton, a township outside the southern coastal port town of Port Elizabeth. Here, the rate of HIV-positive people is 34%, unemployment tops 70%, and many streets have no running water, a common fate in the townships, but youth soccer remains functional, say residents. View Full Image

John W. Miller

Young men in New Brighton spend time outside a shoe-repair shop.

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second match.

World Cup fever is palpable here. Nearby Port Elizabeth, population 740,000, is hosting eight matches, but most residents can't afford to go. Instead, they crowd into their small homes, many of them metal shacks, and rickety one-room pubs, called "shebeens," to watch the games on television. During the World Cup, newspapers have celebrated the humble township backgrounds of South African stars like attacker Steven Pienaar. "You can't miss the vibe," said Zethu Ngceza, a 20-year-old woman who is one of the township's only college students. "All the girls have crushes on Siphiwe Tshabalala," she added, naming South Africa's only goal scorer in its opening 1-1 draw against Mexico in the opening game on June 11. On Wednesday, South Africa, ranked 90th in the world, fell 3-0 to Uruguay in its

The biggest youth-soccer program in New Bbrighton, which has a population of 400,000, has more than 1,000 kids enrolled. Last Sunday afternoon, the third day of the World Cup, the New Brighton Oval, the main field, bustled with more than 100 kids participating in the "2010 Junior Tournament." The Oval is fenced in by a concrete wall topped with barbed wire, to prevent drunks and others from disrupting the game. There was no drone of the plastic "vuvuzela" horn because there were almost no fans. Parents don't usually come to watch. Many have died, and others aren't interested in competitive sports, says Qondakele Sompondo, director of the Ubuntu Education Fund, a nongovernmental organization that organizes after-school programs and administers AIDS tests. Organizers charged an entry fee of one rand (13 U.S. cents) and parking of two rand. The money is a prize for the winning team. The soccer pitch is patchy brown and green from overuse, a contrast to the shiny green rugby pitches that dot the countryside. In South Africa, rugby has traditionally been the game of the mostly white middle and upper classes. As a consequence, rugby fields in better areas, along with soccer fields there tend to be better maintained. Before a game between Red City and the Port Elizabeth Sundowns in the under-15 division, Toto Ntwanambi, the 51-year-old league coordinator, collected identification cards from each player. As has been seen in Little League baseball in the U.S., the pressure to win in the townships is so intense that coaches have on occasion tried to cheat by recruiting older, stronger players. Mr. Ntwanami gives each coach a pile of ID cards from the opposing team so they can check ages. Mr. Ntwanambi wields a wooden stick to herd kids off the field who don't belong. Then it was kickoff time. The game was fast-paced and flowing, but not extraordinarily skilled. Behind the goal, 14-year-old Siyabulela Gotyana, who wasn't playing, awaited his turn and showed a visitor an impressive variety of tricks. He dreams of

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joining Bafana Bafana, the national team, he says. Unfortunately, "pro scouts rarely make it to places like that," says Mpumi Lallie, site coordinator in Port Elizabeth for Grassroots Soccer, which organizes games as a way of educating people about AIDS. "Of course they have unrealistic expectations," says Mr. Sompondo. "But that drives them to work hard." Mr. Lallie points out that "just creating the discipline of showing up for training is a positive in high-crime areas." Some things are the same no matter where you are. The Port Elizabeth Sundowns won 1-0, their goal coming on a misplay by the goalkeeper, mirroring the gaffe by England's Robert Green against the U.S. the night before, and causing the Red City coach to throw his hands in the air. —Each week, Africa Dispatch takes a snapshot of a different African place, offering a ground-level view of change on the continent.

Write to John W. Miller at

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WSJ (16 June 2010)  
WSJ (16 June 2010)  

NEW BRIGHTON, South Africa—In this soccer-mad country, kids of every social class dream of joining "Bafana Bafana," the South African nation...