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World Cup Soccer Brings New Hope to African HIV/AIDS Crisis

By L. K. Regan

Next year's World Cup soccer tournament will be played in South Africa, a country boasting millions of eager soccer fans—but that also has the world's highest rate of HIV infection. In anticipation of the tournament, FIFA, the governing body of international soccer, is pouring money into HIV programs across Africa. It seems the legacy of the World Cup in Africa will go well beyond the usual t-shirts and commemorative jerseys.

Last month's World Cup draw was immediately followed by the launch of the first soccer center in FIFA's "20 Centers for 2010" campaign. This is a plan to build facilities across Africa that will teach young people about football—and HIV/AIDS. The first center was opened in Khayelitsha, South Africa, but the next group of centers will be built in Kenya, Namibia, Mali, Rwanda and Ghana. These are all places where two basic facts hold true: soccer is hugely popular, and HIV is ravaging the social structure. FIFA's plan is to use the passion for soccer to combat the disease.

FIFA's training centers will use football to teach kids how to prevent HIV. "We have said for years there shall be a legacy in Africa when we bring FIFA's World Cup to Africa,'" said FIFA president Joseph Blatter. That legacy, and FIFA's centers, will be managed by an organization called Grassroots Soccer, which already has a presence in South Africa using soccer as an HIV-awareness teaching strategy. At the launch of the Khayelitsha center, Grassroots Soccer performed a demonstration of their techniques, putting teams of children to work dribbling a soccer ball around signs labeled with HIV risk factors: "multiple partners;" "negative peer pressure;" and, of course, "unprotected sex."

The Khayelitsha center was built on a piece of abandoned land that was used as a crime zone and dumping ground (sometimes for the victims of those crimes). Now, there is a soccer field with lights (kept on at night) along with a community center and classroom for lessons. The center will also offer AIDS testing. In a country where unemployment is hovering around 22 percent; where, according to the United Nations the rapes per capita for 1998 to 2000 were the highest in the world; and where 11 percent of the population is HIV+, leading to a quarter of a million deaths per year—every little bit of hope is desperately needed.