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Thursday, July 8, 2010
Updated: July 9, 9:02 AM ET
A game for winners

Soccer has provided a welcome distraction for Blikkiesdorp residents.

Posted by Leander Schaerlaeckens

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Drive through any of South Africa's countless townships and you'll find kids playing soccer barefoot alongside the road on makeshift fields with makeshift balls made from plastic bags tightly wound around an empty can.

Blikkiesdorp United's field lies on a strip of rocky beach sand, 50 yards wide, outside the concrete fencing separating Blikkiesdorp from the rest of Ward 19. The strip has been cleared of most of the litter. Today, the under-10s are having their daily practice, disturbed only by little girls doing handstands alongside the field, stray dogs and pedestrians who didn't notice they were stepping over the invisible sidelines. Sweaters represent goal posts. A pole holding up power lines has become an obstacle to dribble around in the chaotic pickup game between two dozen boys and a few girls. Goals are celebrated as if they're World Cup game winners.

Blikkiesdorp United is the brainchild of Errol van der Byl, a short, gaunt, middle-aged man with a beard connecting the black hat sitting atop his head with the pink and orange polo hugging his frail shoulders. "I started this club because I saw here there's nothing," he said. "Here the kids are running around and doing funny things -- drugs, steal, break-ins and all that -- and I thought, I have to do something. Otherwise, it will be hell to pay by the end of the day. I thought the best way to do it was to organize a soccer team around here."

That was eight months ago, when van der Byl started out with a handful of kids. He now has 90 players from ages 7 to about 24, comprising seven teams in five age categories. To the great pride of van der Byl, they are all registered with the South African Football Association and take part in official competitions. The only currency he is paid is the satisfaction of having made a difference.

A donation of 14 sets of uniforms and cleats made this possible. Uniforms are mandatory in league play. "From one kit, the team developed," van der Byl said. That one batch of uniforms is now clothing all seven teams, varying wildly in size. It's not perfect, admitted van der Byl. On game days, when different age groups play back to back, the kids quickly strip off their uniforms and hand them to the next person, shoes and socks included. Fourteen pairs of socks for seven people. If two games are held at the same time, one has to be forfeited.

The teams practice four days a week and play games on Saturdays and Sundays. If nothing else, it keeps them busy. And it puts them into a regular routine that also incorporates school. "When they wake up in the morning, they know if they come from school ... there is a team they're playing with," said Bern de Kock, a community leader. Van der Byl puts a premium on education with his kids, and insists they only come to practice once their homework is done. "Even the principal knows that I'm the coach here," van der Byl said. "And when there's anything [wrong], he calls me here because we are working very closely and we try to sort it out because it is my main priority [for the kids to] stay in school." As a result of the rigid structure, his kids attend school regularly and almost none smoke. Even for those with promise -- and there certainly are those, at first glance -- schooling is made primary.

"The way forward is to see them achieve whatever they didn't have in their households and so on," de Kock said. "The soccer is encouraging them to see a brighter life in the future for them -- to stay focused, to stay in school, to lift them up."