The Critics: First Night: Cape Town Ajax: The Cape of fresh hope

Europe's new missionaries are nourishing the dream of escape from despair. By Iain Fletcher in Cape Town
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The Independent Online
The bulldozers are sitting patiently this week. They are waiting for the command to level acres of African waste ground and bring hope for a generation of children who have known little. The development of a modern training facility and stadium and the start of a new South African football club offer at least the dream of an escape from the grind of poverty and crime in which the coloured and black children of Cape Town are growing up.

From 1 June Cape Town Spurs and Seven Stars, two of Cape Town's football clubs, are combining with one of Europe's superpowers, Ajax, in a partnership which aims to blend European expertise and professionalism with African exuberance and potential. The change of name is simple, Cape Town Ajax. The possible effects are huge.

Ajax have the model, the structure and knowledge in developing children as young as eight into stars of the world stage. They have refined a system of coaching and educating that has produced the likes of Johan Cruyff and the de Boer brothers. The Cape Town clubs have hope, ambition and a vast pool of untapped potential.

In the Western Cape of South Africa football has traditionally been predominantly a game played by the coloured part of the population. But the trials that are happening this week for a place in the new structure are attracting black people. Of 600 children seen so far, the majority have been black.

Sport is generally a dream played out in real life; for the youngsters trying to be a part of Cape Town Spurs it is a dream of a real life - of escape. Escape from the townships, gangs and drug areas to the affluence and status now enjoyed by the idol who was once one of them, Benny McCarthy.

Three years ago he was skipping tackles for Seven Stars. A product of one of Cape Town's rougher neighbourhoods, he dreamed of moving his family to a better place, away from the developing gangs and the increasing traffic in drugs. Ajax spotted his potential and moved him to Amsterdam. McCarthy moved his entire family into a new five- bedroomed house with a swimming pool. His former team-mates watched, and Cape Town's young children have been lulled to sleep with the fairy tale ever since.

THE BULLDOZERS were waiting patiently here once before. Only 23 years ago they were not symbols of hope and regeneration but of destruction and misery. Instead of helping build a football club, they very nearly destroyed one.

In 1969 a group of coloured footballers, prompted by the growth of racism in the game, decided to start their own club - Cape Town Spurs. They were supplemented by a number of white professionals from England, but the heart and passion of the club were coloured. They played near the coloured communities and regularly attracted crowds in excess of 30,000. They were families, fathers and sons, and just like in the rest of the world, the children idolised the players and dreamed of one day emulating their heroes. The football club became a focal point - a source of hope and enjoyment, part of the heartbeat of the coloured community.

Or at least it was until 1976, when the government forcibly relocated the entire population of District Six, as the area was so charmingly named, more than 50 kilometres to a new, designated coloured area called Mitchell's Plain. As the bulldozers rumbled over the houses so the whites could claim the land, the heartbeat of the football club stuttered and slowed to a barely discernible level.

The players, fans and dreams were all in District Six. Unable to afford to travel to the games, the bond between club and community loosened and the attendances dropped alarmingly. The arrival of Ajax has been an injection of pure adrenalin. The dream factory is back in business.

Alton Meiring, 22, used to play with Benny McCarthy at school. Brought up across the street from each other, they developed a firm friendship. McCarthy is in Amsterdam, Meiring is still playing at Spurs. Five goals in only eight appearances this season suggest a vital, and precious, ability - to score. But Meiring is still trapped in Hanover Park, an area just outside Mitchell's Plain. The gulf between the friends is huge but Meiring clutches to the belief that he can bridge it, especially after the Ajax merger.

But Ian Towers, a former professional at Burnley and the youth development officer of the new Cape Town Ajax club knows that Ajax are really interested in the nine and ten-year-olds, rather than the senior players. "It's the kids that Ajax want to develop," he said. "Their system in Amsterdam is based on getting the kids at a very young age and working with them all the way through to adulthood. That is why they have come here, to develop the kids. Benny McCarthy is a gem they discovered but the interest isn't really in the men."

None of which stops Meiring dreaming, of course. "It seems selfish but I think of the money that Ajax can bring," he said. "To be like Benny is a dream, but it is one we all have. When you grow up in the areas we have and you see the violence and the drugs you naturally want to get your family out.

"If Benny can do it, so can I. Now we are all playing for a place in the new club players have stopped going through the motions and are trying hard to impress."

THE SENIOR players are not alone in trying to impress. It is four o'clock last Tuesday afternoon and the four football fields are swamped with eager youngsters all chasing the prize of a scholarship in one of the age groups, under 9, 11, 13 ,15, 17 and 19.

The real work has barely begun as scouts are spreading further into the black townships. Development programmes are planned throughout the Western Cape, and few stones will be left unturned in the search for a nugget of raw gold.

The task is enormous but the rewards substantial. The plan is to take those selected and offer a complete package of benefits. Relocation to more amenable schools, affiliation with the local universities and technical colleges and a firm basis in education. Each year it is planned that those selected will spend three months in Amsterdam. Their hope is to play for Ajax and enter the doorway of financial security; the club's is to continue the production of world-class players.

"We have to select the players and then give them almost a different life," explained Thierry Tison, sports scientist and marketing manager of Cape Town Ajax. "It isn't just picking kids because the stages of development between the coloureds and blacks can vary so much. Some of the blacks only eat once a day and their bodies can't develop the strength needed for decent sport. We need to educate on diet as well as in the classroom but the whole purpose is to give those selected opportunities in all areas of life, not just football.

"We are supplying bus transport for the children, supplying all the facilities, education and, we hope, purpose. Of course we want to produce footballers for the benefit of Ajax Amsterdam as well as Cape Town Ajax, but we are doing it the Ajax way, by looking at the whole picture and placing great emphasis on education and help. This is so important, particularly in South Africa where the education some of the blacks and coloureds receive is not comparable to Europe.

"Ajax have a global plan and are setting up deals in Ghana and Mexico as well. The response we have received has been enormous, there is definitely a buzz around football here again because we are offering so much."

So far they have offered hope, which for many is already far more than they have been used to.

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