Discovering the true power of football

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Like many former Premier League footballers, Dennis Bailey has made the pilgrimage to South Africa to join the army of English fans supporting our team. But unlike some footballers who are content to commentate or watch the matches and then head out to the bars and clubs, Dennis was determined to give something back to the rainbow nation.

"I'd been running a football club for disadvantaged kids in Stratford-upon- Avon for many years and thought it would be interesting to see the similarities and the differences facing young people, particularly those from poor backgrounds. So my local church Renewal put me in contact with a Christian charity called World Emergency Relief (WER) who have been running a football community project in the township of Paarl just outside Cape Town since 2005."

In his career Bailey, a devout Christian, played for a number of clubs including Watford, Birmingham and QPR but is best remembered for being one of only two players ever to have scored a hat trick against Manchester United at Old Trafford in 1992. Since retiring from the game he has become a self employed coach so when his church was looking for a way of connecting with young people he volunteered to help.

"Behind the popular tourist image of Stratford associated with Shakespeare there are poor areas. Many of the children from the estate where I work come from tough backgrounds and at first can be difficult to control. They tend to swear a lot and spit, and often disagreements over the ball end in fights. After one match a kid robbed the local shop. To be honest I thought I'd seen it all".

But even Bailey was unprepared for the realities of life in the townships of South Africa. Just outside the affluent and predominantly white centre of Paarl young black people live in run down shacks with a large extended family and eke out a living from recycling metal and other waste they find on rubbish dumps. To counteract the boredom and sense of futility some have become addicted to the drug 'tik' or crystal meth and consequently have turned to crime to feed their habitat. Rates of HIV are also very high with half the young people in the township thought to be positive according to Butterfly house, the local hospice.

On the day Bailey arrived at the club house he was met by an ecstatic crowd numbering hundreds because word had quickly got round that a celebrity footballer was visiting them. For many young people in the community this will be as close to a real footballer as any of them will ever get despite the World Cup being played just an hour away.

"I was shocked by what I saw but also really impressed by the strong sense of community spirit. Much of this is down to the hard work which WER has put in over the years. Over 1000 young people, both boys and girls, now play each week at the club and the coaches like Francisco have really won the respect of the community. That's not easy when you are talking about young men who have been marginalised by society and who trust nobody".

Typical is Vusi Hebe, a 22-year-old whose brother is serving 15 years in prison for armed robbery. The government promised him a new home back in 2000 under their house building programme but he is still waiting. No one he knows has a job but everyone is in a gang. The only modern building in his neighbourhood is the hospice and he plays for their team.

"For young people like Vusi who have grown up with the project just giving them a shirt and a pair of football boots gives them a sense of self esteem. It builds their confidence and also teaches them life skills like team work and to play by the rules. But perhaps most importantly it shows them an alternative life to one of crime and drugs and helps to keep them out of trouble."

WER and Butterfly House also teach them about the dangers of unprotected sex and on match days leaflets on sexually transmitted diseases are distributed to the local community in both English and Afrikaans. They leave nothing to the imagination and include graphic pictures of blisters, sores, warts and other unusual genital swellings.

"Back in England we're used to a much softer message when it comes to the perils of teenage sex. Here it is in your face but it has to be. One of the statistics which has most impressed me about the project is the number of teenage girls who get pregnant. In the community as a whole it is over 30 per cent but in the whole five years the project has been running only half a dozen girls have become pregnant. That really shows the power of football to change lives and not just men's".

To make the World Cup relevant to the people of Paarl WER have organised a parallel tournament featuring local teams. They have also given cameras to the children to show what life is really like in South Africa and have posted their stories on its website.

But when it comes to comparing the life chances of young people in Stratford and Paarl Bailey is cautious about making judgements. "You cannot really compare the lot of young people in England with those in South Africa because we're a much richer nation and we've never experienced the evils of apartheid. What I'd really like to do is bring the kids I teach in Stratford to Paarl so they could see what life is like here. It might help them to value more what they've got. And it would also help them think long and hard about what they are doing with their lives".

And what would be his message to the other footballers who have descended on South Africa to enjoy the World Cup? "Get in contact with a charity like World Emergency Relief and visit a township before you go home. You'll get the best reception you've ever had in your life. And in a game like football which is associated in the eyes of many with fame and fortune it's vital that we all try to give something back".

For more information on World Emergency Relief, click here .

For more information on Butterfly House, click here .

For more information on the Renewal church, click here.