Beyond World Cup 2010 glitz, boys' soccer club battles post-apartheid woes

The World Cup 2010 match of Uruguay vs. France kicked off Friday in Cape Town. Amid still-prevalent crime and segregation in post-apartheid South Africa, a soccer academy in a nearby suburb tries to keep boys out of trouble.

By , Correspondent

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    France's Abou Diaby, second from left, clears the ball past Uruguay's Mauricio Victorino, left, and Uruguay's Diego Lugano, second from right, during the World Cup 2010 soccer match between Uruguay and France in Cape Town, South Africa, on Friday.
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Nearly 70,000 football fans packed into the Cape Town Stadium for the city’s opening match of Uruguay vs. France. In the shadow of Table Mountain and with views over Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, the stadium showcased the wealth and glamour of soccer in front of a worldwide audience.

But less than 13 miles away is the other side of the South Africa World Cup. In the drug- and gangster-ridden suburb of Heideveld on the Cape Flats, Mario van Niekerk struggles to run his soccer club and keep young players away from the clutches of crime. He is part of the community of so-called Cape Coloureds, a group of some 4 million mixed-raced descendants of slave laborers, mostly living in Western Cape province.

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“A lot of the problems in Heideveld is the legacy of the last 40 years. When it was apartheid, we weren’t white enough. Now that it’s a black government, we’re not black enough," says Mr. van Niekerk. “The Cape Coloured community on the Cape Flats has been caught in the middle. The World Cup is happening here but we won’t see any of the money but we probably need it the most.”

While fans spend tens of thousands of dollars on tickets, scarves, and vuvuzelas to watch international matches, his Great Commission United Academy has to beg and borrow to raise enough Rands to keep the club going. Van Niekerk, who established the club in 2001, says the lack of support for grassroots initiatives was racial and dispiriting.

“It is a struggle to get boots, balls, posts, and petrol to run our van," he says.

Teaching 'discipline and dedication'

The Manchester United fan set up GCU after despairing of the drugs and gangsterism prevalent in Heideveld and surrounding communities. Many of the residents of Heideveld and the Cape Flats area were "resettled" from District Six in the 1960s during apartheid when it was designated a white area.

“We teach the boys discipline and dedication," van Niekerk says. "I treat them all like professionals and am hard on them on things like lateness and manners. If you give them discipline on and off the field, they learn to respect themselves because a lot of them don’t have that at home."

“I call it prehab, not rehab, get them before they start causing trouble. They can easily fall into gangs who will feed them, look after them, and love them unconditionally – for a price.”

The soccer academy is situated at the 1960s-era Woodlands Primary School, which teaches about 460 boys and girls ages five to 15. Van Niekerk says GCU has taught soccer to an estimated 1,500 boys since it started and now operates seven youth teams.

Keeps most boy away from crime

The literacy rate in Heideveld is about 25 percent and the average child drops out of school at 12 years old, contributing to the crime rate here. Van Niekerk believes that about 70 percent of GCU players have stayed away from drugs and gangs.

But that also means that an estimated 500 boys have entered crime. When The Christian Science Monitor recently visited the academy, van Niekerk was called away to challenge a gang outside the school who had hit a 12-year-old player on the head thinking he was a rival gang member. “He’s not a gang member, he’s just 12-years-old," van Niekerk says he told the gang.

While wealthy Cape Town and the rest of the world sit to enjoy the World Cup, GCU will be watching it on a giant screen at their dilapidated school, beside their rubbish-strewn practice pitch.

“We can’t afford to go to games," van Niekerk adds. "They sold us cheap tickets for R140 ($18) but who has R140 when they can’t even pay their school fees?”

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