From the training ground to the townships: England stars get a reality check

Dawson takes time out to visit an orphanage, but the children have only one question on their minds: is Rooney coming too?
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The Independent Football

Michael Dawson finally met the 12-year-old orphaned South African child he has sponsored for the last year yesterday and young Aubrey did not let him down. With an unintentionally comic touch he was wearing a Manchester United shirt with Wayne Rooney's name on it, proving the old adage that there are limits to anyone's gratitude.

Yesterday, the Football Association reached out to the community around its opulent training base at Royal Bafokeng outside Rustenburg and for a while the anxiety that habitually stalks this organisation and its officials was put aside. For a while, in the sunshine in the Tlhabane West township, everyone could forget Robert Green's howler and the imperative of getting a win over Algeria on Friday.

Dawson and Matthew Upson were there to visit the SOS Children charity project to house vulnerable children, which has been funded by the FA and Tottenham Hotspur. These events can be awkward affairs, especially with an entourage of camera crews and reporters descending on a puzzled community. But once everyone had got over the initial formalities, and the local kids who had converged on the street outside had been told that Rooney was not coming, the FA did what it does best.

There was a chance for Aubrey to show off his skills in a game of head tennis with Dawson. There were goodie bags for all the children and the chance to see how the Adidas Jabulani behaved on a rough and ready township pitch (verdict: the kids did not seem to have any problem putting it in the top corner). Upson even made an early run for John Terry's vacant "dad of the year" title by demonstrating excellent parenting skills with two-year-old Baboo.

"We had a bit of banter in the house, I picked him up and he didn't want to get down," Upson said. "He is an entertaining little fella. I've got a two-year-old myself, so this brings it home a bit. It is nice to break out of the focus of football. You can't just have football 24/7. Coming here and seeing this is a really nice change of environment. I do that back home. It's key. You can't eat, sleep and breathe it."

Upson was not the only one surprised at how well-ordered the community was. Tlhabane West, outside Rustenburg, has strict rules on the houses that can be built. The SOS Children's projects are built within existing communities and each house costs around £60,000. The difference between the two worlds was best illustrated by the fact that Spurs' house was paid for entirely by the kitty of players' fines.

Dawson said: "The house was funded through fines, through players being late for training and other things. And when you come here and see this, it's fantastic that the lads were late for training! I was hoping Aubrey was going to have a 'Dawson' Spurs shirt but you just can't sway some people, can you? To finally meet him is a great experience for me. He's a great little lad and he looks like he's a talented footballer as well."

The house built by Spurs opened in September 2008 and accommodates four boys and four girls. It did not go unnoticed that one of the boys in the Spurs house was called "Levy", although no one was prepared to say whether he was the one who told everyone what to do as well as keeping a close eye on the budget.

Tshepang Motlhoe, a 16-year-old school student who has aspirations to be a professional musician, said it was a "special day" for the area. "For a lot of people we only see these guys [Upson and Dawson] on the television. So to have them here is very special for Tlhabane West. We are proud of it."

All 32 of the competing nations are obliged by Fifa to do some work with their local community and it helps the 2018 World Cup bid for the FA to forge links in Africa through charity. They cannot bring players along to every good cause because, in case we forget, they are primarily here to try to win a tournament but yesterday's activity never veered into the indulgent or self-congratulatory.

Dawson said: "It's certainly opened everyone's minds – I'm sure yours as well. As well as the houses, each individual player at Tottenham has sponsored one child, so it's fantastic. We get as many people involved as we can. Fortunately for me I've been out and experienced it and finally met Aubrey. The memories will stay with me."

A no-nonsense Yorkshire lad, Dawson certainly sounded like he meant it and by the end the kids were asking for autographs from Dawson and Upson. A couple of them were even enquiring as to who West Ham were and whether they were in the same division as Manchester United and Arsenal. Aubrey still had his Rooney shirt on but he was also glad to meet the man who had paid for his education.

* www.soschildrensvillages.org.uk/

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