College sends footballers to South African townships. Martin Whittaker reports
When Michael Scott's early hopes of a professional football career faded, he found himself without a goal in life.
Now, he says, he is much more focused. He has his sights set on university and wants to teach.
He had his change of heart when he was given the opportunity to teach football to children in Soweto, South Africa. Michael, 19, made his second visit to the township over Easter, with other students from South Nottingham college.
"It made me think about what's really important," he says. "It just made me wake up and want to sort myself out."
The visit was part of a project called Balls to Poverty, run by the college where Michael studied, and sponsored by the manufacturing union Amicus.
In two years it has grown from an idea to donate footballs to township children into a national campaign to improve their sporting opportunities, while raising awareness of poverty and broadening the horizons of Nottingham students.
Balls to Poverty was the brainchild of Joe Sargison, who is the college's director of football as well as the youth coach for Nottingham Forest's academy. Mr Sargison was invited to coach a team in Johannesburg in 2004, where he saw the poverty in the townships first hand.
"I was really touched by my visit and wanted to give something back to the country," he said.
A friend had given him 100 footballs left over from a Euro 2004 promotion.
Mr Sargison came up with the idea of donating them to township children while also involving his students.
South Nottingham college runs a football performance programme, offering students the chance to continue in full-time education while receiving football coaching and playing in local and college leagues.
Last year, 16 students and three staff visited South Africa to play in a tournament, and coached children in poor townships around Cape Town.
Teenagers gave coaching clinics to more than 1,500 children in the townships of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town. And they donated 3,000 balls, football kits and pens, paper and rulers.
Mr Sargison said that rugby and cricket are largely the preserve of affluent South Africans. Black teenagers prefer soccer.
"You go into the townships and you see kids on the streets all day long playing football," he said.
He says the poor communities have a wealth of football talent, with few opportunities for coaching or allowing youngsters to progress in the sport.
"In this country you think of Wayne Rooney coming from a deprived area like Toxteth in Liverpool. You can magnify that 100-fold out there, where there are townships with as many as 1.2 million kids.
"The number of youngsters being left behind is phenomenal. We saw some incredibly talented footballers. No club alive in this country would say no to them."
The Balls to Poverty campaign is now growing. It has the backing of Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary, who is persuading colleagues in other constituencies to donate sports kit and footballs for the townships.
Joe Sargison is planning future student visits. He aims to have donated 10,000 footballs by the time South Africa hosts the World Cup in 2010.
Already he has seen his own students benefit. Some come on the course having had their hopes of becoming professional footballers dashed because of attitude or behaviour issues.
"Every single student who has been to South Africa is now studying. Either they have stayed on another year to do another course, or they are going to university, which for me is the biggest achievement of all."
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