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Football Means Much More on the Streets

Posted: 23/09/2013 00:00

Growing up as a kid I have many fond memories of my granddad taking me to watch the Stoke City games, and now I take my son. Football can be such a great bonding experience, but for many children around the world it means something much more.

In Mwanza, Tanzania's second biggest town, there are at least 1,880 youngsters living and working on the streets. Each day is a constant struggle for food, shelter and safety.

When I was given the chance to see the way a local charity uses football to change the lives of young people, I jumped at the opportunity.

Money raised by The Supporters Club, BT Sport's charitable initiative, is going to the charity Caretakers of The Environment (COET) which provides street children up to the age of 18 with long-term shelter at the Kuleana centre where they also receive education and health care. It's here that they run daily football sessions, creating an opportunity to check up on their wellbeing and provide them with wider services such as vital health care and invaluable support and care - making them safe and building trust.

Hearing these children's stories, I'm struck by how alone they are. Many have been abandoned by their family, or run away to escape abuse.

Nothing could prepare me for seeing groups of these children sleeping together for protection and friendship on roadsides or dusty corners. Anything can happen at night, and it's shocking to see such vulnerable youngsters in that setting.

Wondering what might happen to these children during the night is a feeling that burns away at me during the trip, and I can't shake it off.

When these children wake up, they go straight to Kuleana to collect their sports kit, check in with the staff and play football.

Football brings them together, they become part of a team and it unlocks precious moments away from their daily battle for survival. Seeing the smiles burst out on their faces - I understand how important these sessions are.

On the edge of the dusty pitch where the football sessions take place is the Furaisha rubbish dump, home to those who've missed out on COET's early-age support.

In their late teens and twenties, street-life has become their routine. They set up camp in a dirty, infested tip where cows and large marabou storks rummage in the rotting trash.

Girls living here are often raped, most are HIV positive and the boys are at risk of gang attacks and police raids. They call it home, but I can think of few worse places to live. With this alternative life laid out in front of me, it's some comfort to know that COET's takes the younger children under their wing in a pre-emptive strike against this future.

Walking around the bustling Mwanza city, it feels like every child on the street is clad in a football strip; Chelsea, Arsenal, Brazil, and most are barefoot.

Fifteen-year-old Frank is one of the residents at Kuleana. The former street child is a keen member of the Street Soccer Academy, and thanks to COET is also back at school.

On his mattress, he's scrawled a motto, 'I want to bee footballer in my life', followed by 'Thanks God' in reference to the support, training and love that he gets from COET.

Thanks to money raised by The Supporters Club, football means something much more here.

The documentary The Supporters Club: Street Child to Soccer Star will be at 8pm on BT Sport 1 on Monday 23rd September. The Supporters Club is BT Sport's new charitable initiative that helps young people facing some of life's toughest challenges. It supports projects that make a real difference - transforming lives at projects both home and away. To join The Supporters Club or find out more, please go to www.thesupportersclub.org or follow us on twitter @supporters

 
 
 
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