Mini World Cup-Style Tournaments

For my first two weeks, I am spending time in Durban with Africaid’s Whizzkids United, an organization using soccer as a means of delivering HIV prevention, care, treatment, and support to youth. Founded in 2003, Africaid works in three provinces in South Africa (the headquarters being in Durban), with programs also located in Ghana, Uganda, Australia, and the United Kingdom. I decided to spend time with Whizzkids United because they will be sending four players from their program to the Football for Hope Festival. I figured that this would be a perfect opportunity to learn more about their program and maybe meet the kids who will be going to the festival. As I found out on my first day in the office on Monday, the Whizzkids United program includes several components. First, the organization implements a 10 hour Life Skills curriculum in both primary and secondary schools. The sessions teach kids about HIV/AIDS prevention by using soccer as an analogy for life. Every course takes place right out on the soccer field, with soccer drills interspersed with lessons about HIV/AIDS. For example, when discussing how to protect oneself from the virus, the players will participate in a soccer drill in which they are divided into teams and the players must steal the soccer balls of the other teams. The coach will apply the drill to real life by asking the players, “How do you feel when you cannot defend what is important to you?” This in turn leads to a discussion about issues such as abstinence, the importance of using condoms, and being faithful to one partner. The players use what they learn during the sessions to work on a homework booklet throughout the semester. After completing the Life Skills course, the players are rewarded by participating in a mixed-gender, World Cup-style tournament. Several stand-out players from each Life Skills class are further trained to continue to reinforce the skills gained from the course by acting as “peer educators” in their classrooms. As a final component of the program, Whizzkids United will be offering long-term support for its graduates by opening a Health Academy that will provide professional treatment and support specifically tailored to youth. At the moment, most of the Life Skills courses are just finishing up, which means that I have the chance to be involved in running the tournaments! Yesterday, we set up small goals and fields in front of the office to host about 180 fifth and sixth graders from one of the local schools for their celebration tournament. The kids were divided into mixed-gender teams of about 5 players, and each team was given the name of one of the 2010 World Cup teams. I was involved in overseeing or “mediating” the teams from Netherlands, Cameroon, Japan, and Denmark on Field 5 for the first round. The Whizzkids tournaments follow the same FIFA Fair Play rules as those that will be used at the Football for Hope Festival. This means that the games are played without referees. The players must work out their differences amongst themselves. As a mediator, I was only supposed to step in if there was a major disagreement. My role at the tournament was very useful in preparing me for my research at the Football for Hope Festival, particularly because the lack of referees during the games will be one of the central components that could influence the attitudes of the participants towards other countries and cultures—which embodies what I will be researching at the festival. Acting as a mediator gave me a chance to observe how the kids play without referees, and I have to say that I was quite impressed on the whole.  The players called their own fouls and there were very few disagreements. The first language of the children was Zulu, but most of them spoke very good English and they always referred to me as “Ma’am.” At one point, I looked up and saw the ball go in the goal so I called out, “2 to 0 for the Netherlands!” But the Netherlands player who scored came over and said to me, “No, ma’am, my goal does not count because the goal was falling apart when I scored.” Another time, a girl came over to me and complained that the boys were not passing to her, but just at that moment her team scored and she ran right back out cheering and laughing. The tournament was a perfect example of organized chaos, and I loved it. Kids would walk through the fields eating bags of chips while games were going on. Other kids would simply wander off and I would then need to figure out how to fill their teams so that they wouldn’t be short players. During the quarter finals, the kids whose teams had been eliminated started cheering and dancing really loudly on the sidelines. When one of the teams would score, they would even rush the fields chanting their team’s name and waving their arms. I was able to conduct several mini mixed-gendered focus group discussions with some of the Whizzkids participants after the tournament, and it was very interesting to hear their views on the Whizzkids program as well as the tournaments.  The kids all really liked participating in the program, which they said had taught them about HIV/AIDS, setting goals, and being confident in themselves.  They also had a wonderful time playing in the tournaments, though they agreed that playing without referees was challenging at times.  One of the girls said that the boys did not pass the ball to the girls, but another girl thought that it depended on the boy.  The boys felt that sometimes players cheated and did not stop playing after they had committed a foul.  But all the kids agreed that the tournaments were still a lot of fun, and they said that no one would hold any grudges after the games because they are all friends.  Conducting these focus groups was very helpful, giving me an idea of how the children respond to the questions I ask them and allowing me to practice my role as a discussion moderator. After the first round of the games, Whizzkids provided all of the kids with hot dogs before the next rounds began. At the very end, each player was given a medal and trophies were awarded to both the winning team and the player who best demonstrated the qualities of fair play.