Page last updated at 09:18 GMT, Monday, 15 March 2010

Street children aim for World Cup victory

South African team playing football

By Pumza Fihlani
BBC News, Durban

Just like any other national captain, Wanda Msani is dreaming of glory at the World Cup in South Africa.

But Wanda's tournament kicks off on 15 March, three months earlier than the Fifa event and for the 14-year-old boy who lives on the streets, there is far more than just a game at stake.

"When people walk past us, they look at us like we are dogs. They look down on us like we are not even people, just because we eat from bins," he says, his eyes burning with anger.

"They will see that we can be something."

Wanda Msani, captain of South Africa's Street Child World Cup team
Wanda Msani has been living on the streets since the age of nine

More than anything else, Wanda wants to make his father proud, hoping to be allowed to return home to the Umlazi township outside Durban, which he left five years ago, aged just nine.

Since then, he has been on the streets - sleeping on pavements, under trees, park benches and alleys with only a cardboard box to offer warmth.

"After my parents separated, my father started drinking all the time," he says.

"When he got drunk, he would beat me up so badly he wouldn't stop. I knew I had to run away."

For Wanda and his team-mates, playing football offers an escape from their hellish lives of constant hunger, an absence of love, the threat of sexual abuse and in which sniffing glue is often the only comfort.

But while they hope that football can change people's perceptions about street kids, it has also brought a new danger to contend with.

World Cup clean-up?

The street kids say Durban's municipal police are forcibly removing children at night and dumping them miles away from town.

Some police reportedly use teargas to disorient the children and make them more submissive.

 Nosipho Mabaso playing football
The tournament is the first step to my new life
Nosipho Mabaso, 16

City officials have always denied that this campaign is linked to its World Cup preparations or commented on the alleged abuses. They say the round-ups are driven by the need to curb crime in the city centre.

Workers at Umthombo, a charity which co-organised the Street Child World Cup, say they hope the tournament will remind law enforcement officers that the youngsters are not criminals but traumatised children who need greater care and empathy than many hard-handed officers show.

Fifa World Cup local chairman Danny Jordaan last year said he would not support any move to "create a false impression about South Africa" when he addressed a media conference where the subject of a clampdown on street children was discussed.

"We cannot be a country that creates false impressions. We are a country of diversity, rich and poor, employed and unemployed, and the world must know that we have massive challenges of poverty and housing and we must address these issues," he said.

Burning determination

Thirteen children are in South Africa's squad for the seven-a-side matches against seven international teams - Brazil, India, Nicaragua, Ukraine, Philippines, UK, Tanzania and Vietnam - at the Durban University of Technology.

South Africa's team has been around for more than seven years but this will be the first time its members aged 14-16 compete in an international tournament.

Moses-Mabhida stadium in Durban
South Africa has spent millions on new football stadiums

For many of them the five-day football tournament is an opportunity to begin a new life.

They have been practising every day for two weeks ahead of the tournament, trading their worn-out clothes for smart blue and yellow football kit.

Vuyani Madolo from Umthombo has been coaching the team for many years and says it is a fulfilling and challenging task.

He spent three years of his life on the streets of East London and says he uses his own experiences to motivate his players.

"I ran away from home when I was seven after being repeatedly emotionally abused by my family because I still could not speak.

"I only learned to speak on the street. Today the children and I have a strong bond because they know what I went through and see that a better life is possible," he says.

Although the round-ups have posed a new challenge to the already difficult lives of some of these youngsters, many are refusing to lose sight of their goals.

A new beginning

Nosipho Mabaso, 16, is the only girl on the team and says playing football has renewed her sense of self-worth.

"When I play football I forget about the bad things in my life.

We are also going to take the cup - the trophy will stay here at home
Andile Dladla, 16

"Before I moved to the street no-one had ever tried to force me to sleep with them, but since coming here I know what that is like, it is very scary," she says.

"I don't want this life any more. I want to go back home and go back to school.

"The tournament is the first step to my new life," she says, with a bright smile on her face.

Sixteen-year old Andile Dladla says he is looking forward to both his team's World Cup and Fifa's.

He says he draws inspiration from South Africa's national team.

"I think that South Africa will take the trophy in June - I think they are getting better now, they are not losing every time."

"We are also going to take the cup - the trophy will stay here at home," he predicts confidently, raising cheers from his team-mates.

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