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Soccer 4 Hope: The Miracle of Khayelitsha

By Scott Russell

Posted: Monday, March 15, 2010 | 11:34 AM

They call South Africa the “Rainbow Nation” and it’s not hard to understand why.

So many vivid colours are evident in the people, the landscape, the music and the art.  But it is also a country full of stark contrasts and a great divide between those who have so much and those who have next to nothing.

Such is the case as you move from the opulent waterfront of Cape Townwhere sailors and windsurfers frolic in the shadow of majestic Table Mountain, to the mean streets in the outlying township of Khayelitsha.

Fifteen minutes away from the breathtaking beauty of one of the world’s great cities is a ghetto littered by thousands upon thousands of tin shacks, roaming dogs and a gaggle of people who appear to live on the forgotten fringe of wealth.

It is a shock to see how little there is in Khayelitsha.

But there is, almost miraculously, soccer on every corner and a street tournament for young girls being put on by a group known as Soccer 4 Hope.  In amongst the shanties, the dirt, and the clotheslines where laundry hangs to dry in a gentle breeze, the children play.

Soccer 4 Hope is in its fourth year of operation and the brainchild of Mark Crandall who first came to Africa as a Rotary exchange student from Long Island, N.Y., in 1984.  Crandall subsequently made inroads in seven countries on the continent with Hoops 4 Hope, taking an inner city American approach to delivering sport to young people in need.

But in Africa, Crandall has found that soccer is even more powerful than basketball because it’s a universal obsession in this part of the world.

“We try to affect places that are in need of community building,” Crandall says.  “We use the power of sport to influence children to do the right things.  Part of every practice and every game is a curriculum that involves a message about taking care of yourself and living in the best way possible.”

It’s a tough job when the community Crandall is dealing with is so impoverished and the incidence of HIV/AIDS is so overwhelmingly frequent.

“Everyone is either infected of affected,” Crandall shakes his head.

Meantime the girls play five-on-five in a space between shacks that is the size of an average North American family room.  The broken glass has been swept aside and there are garbage bins to form the goals.  Some of them wear recycled Tim Hortons, Burlington, Ontario Minor Soccer Association shirts that have been sent to Africa by overseas patrons of Soccer 4 Hope.

People like Vancouver high school teacher Rick Gill who not long ago filled a massive shipping container with castoff balls, cleats, shorts and jerseys and had them delivered to Khayelitsha.

“Rick started a chapter of our program in B.C. and is a huge champion for us,” Mark Crandall recognizes.

To an outside observer, the kids who take part appear to be remarkably happy as they shout and cheer every save made by the goaltender. There are skilful moves revealed by strikers like Sesethu, a 12-year-old who tells us in her native tongue of Xhosa (one of 11 dialects in South Africa) what it all means.

“It gives me the knowledge and the ability to know I can become like other soccer players,” she says.  “And also I will become a coach to the other young people who are growing.”

It’s hard not to be emotionally moved by the joy that exists in the simple act of kicking a ball and playing on a team in this desperate place.

“I love the word hope,” says Wey Wey Sokoyi, one of the Soccer 4 Hope coaches.  “This is a sport that can mean hope.  We can all meet and talk a common language and also build a safe environment for the young ones.”

In less than three months from now, the FIFA World Cup will be played just down the road from Khayelitsha at the state of the art Green Point Stadium in Cape Town.  The likes of England’s Wayne Rooney and Brazil’s Kaka along with the rest of the international superstars will make headlines as big time soccer advances to the African frontier.

Today, in the ramshackle street of a horribly poor township, Soccer 4 Hope is going about its business believing that because the big event is coming, the lives of these children will be affected in a positive way.

“It seems that the only news that comes out of Africa is bad news,” Mark Crandall figures.  “Perhaps having the World Cup here means that the vast potential of these people might finally be reflected.”

It’s a beautiful sentiment but it calls for a miracle.

Then again, in Khayelitsha as the children play a simple game against a complicated backdrop, the power of sport seems to be very close at hand.