Street kids stage their own World Cup in South Africa

DURBAN: Wearing jerseys in national colours, football teams from eight countries face off on a South African pitch, in full World Cup fervour. But in this tournament, the players are all street kids.

Child welfare groups from across the globe brought teams from Brazil, England, India, Nicaragua, Philippines, South Africa, Tanzania and Ukraine. It’s the first event of its kind, aiming to grab the football spotlight to give children a platform to speak about the poverty and violence they face on the streets.

“I represent most of the kids who are on the streets. Because, us street kids, our voice is not heard amongst the people so, we are trying to do that,” said Ashley Vincent, on the South African team. He ran away from his family in Johannesburg and made his way to Durban’s warm coast, where he begs on the sidewalks to survive.

In Durban, street kids complain that police regularly round them up and take them to a poorly equipped centre outside the city. “They’re rounding up kids every single day because of 2010,” said Tom Hewitt, founder of Umthombo, a group that works with street kids in Durban. “Street children are not the image people want to see,” he said.

Police deny that they’re targetting the estimated 400 street kids in Durban to clean up the city for the World Cup, but say they do intervene when they receive complaints. “They sleep outside, in front of people’s houses. At night, they become a problem,” said police spokeswoman Joyce Khuzwayo. “Street kids steal when they don’t get enough from begging. They are hungry,” she said. “Sometimes, they steal money, bags at the beachfront. People complain.”

Umthombo helped organise the street kids WC, less than three months before the start of the big event, to highlight how sports can help tackle the problem by giving children a reason to get off the sidewalks. The teams are competing on a school campus in Durban, with vuvuzela trumpets blowing in stands filled with wigs and faces painted in national colours.

During the FIFA World Cup, organisers of the children’s event will set up a surveillance system to reduce the risk of street kids facing abuse during the month-long tournament, and to set up sports events to keep them off the streets.

Many of the children on the pitch have never before left their hometown. “I never flew on a plane. I was a bit anxious,” said Rogeria Sousadossanitos, smiling in her Brazil jersey. The 16-year-old said she’s been training since October for the tournament. “I feel like a winner for being here. If it is possible for me and my friends, it is possible for other street kids to feel like a winner as well,” she said.

Children turn to the street when they believe they have no other options, or sometimes in hopes of begging for money to support their families, said Eugene Nqadi from Umthombo, which worked with the British group Amos Trust and Deloitte accounting firm to stage the event.

“If a child has no proper house and no proper care, he can go to the street to get money for food, maybe for him and his family,” he said. “More than that, there are other (factors) like peer pressure. If a boy sees his friends on the streets, then he would like to go on the street,” Nqadi added.