As part of preparations for the football World Cup in South Africa, officials recently inaugurated a refurbished sports stadium in one of Johannesburg's less wealthy neighborhoods. During the World Cup, the 3,000-seat facility will host an alternative football tournament for disadvantaged young people from around the world.
Football officials and community organizers recently launched the Football for Hope tournament on March 25 in Alexandra, an impoverished township in eastern Johannesburg torn by violence and crime.
The two-week-long tournament, to be held in July toward the end of the World Cup, will bring together more than 200 underprivileged young people from 40 nations.
It is part of a program called Football for Hope that seeks to use the popularity of football to enhance social development.
Football's governing body, FIFA, is sponsoring the event. Head of corporate responsibility Federico Addiechi said this is a way to give back to disadvantaged people who often are among the sport's most ardent supporters.
"Football is with no doubt an integral part of our life. And therefore it is FIFA's responsibility and the responsibility of everyone involved in the game of football to use its popularity, to use its power, as a tool for social change," Addiechi said.
Football for Hope was founded five years ago. It works with 82 organizations in 50 countries that use football to promote HIV/AIDS awareness, conflict resolution, children's rights, anti-discrimination and environmental issues.
The head of South Africa's Organizing Committee, Danny Jordaan, called Football for Hope "another World Cup." He said it was just as important as the tournament starring the world's best football players because it focuses on young people's aspirations and hope for change and opportunity.
"Because in each of those teams you will find examples of players who come from the ghettos of Accra, Abidjan, and all the other ghettos," Jordaan adds. "And you listen to their stories and their determination not to look at where they come from, but to pursue always where they are going to."
One of FIFA's partners in the program is Street Football World. It director, Jurgen Griesbeck, explained how the participants were chosen.
"These delegations have been selected first of all because of their commitment to live healthy and economically independent in the future, and you know that this is hard work for a lot of young people-secondly, [for] the commitment to contribute to social change in their own communities," Griesbeck said.
Team Alexandra's eight boys and girls are young community leaders who have overcome many personal challenges.
The team's coach, 18-year-old Sello Mahlangu, is a local volunteer who lives with his mother and three siblings in Alexandra.
"In this community many children come from disadvantaged families," Mahlangu said. "So some of them, they get bad influence and they commit crimes. So I think this this program is there to protect them and to guide them to stay away from those things."
Eighteen-year-old Catherine Skhosana says football has kept her off the streets.
"It is amazing grace to me. It is like I was out there in the dark and then someone came and pulled me out," said Skhosana.
The launch ceremony climaxes with a match between Team Alexandra and former South African football stars from the neighborhood.
Conflict resolution is a major theme here. The team coming from Israel includes both Israeli and Palestinian kids. Players from the war-torn nations of the former Yugoslavia make up another team.
The side [squad] from Cambodia includes land mine victims, and those from Britain and the United States include homeless youths.
There will be no referees because the players themselves will resolve any disputes.
FIFA plans to launch 20 such centers across Africa this year. It wants them to be a legacy of the excitement and good will created by the continent's first World Cup.