By Param Bhatter
Could soccer be the most popular sport in the world? With the FIFA World Cup approaching, and all of the drama and excitement that it entails, soccer fans all over the world are getting more and more anxious with anticipation for the summer. As perhaps the one sport that is played and watched by all, from any culture, the world stage that soccer employs is perhaps the greatest of any sport. Soccer also happens to be perhaps one of the most democratic sports in the world, with every player, regardless of position, contributing equally to the team and having the ability to score. With over 1 billion people watching the world cup, nobody can deny the power of soccer and its ability to unify people all over the world.
But soccer is no longer just a sport. With such a global presence, soccer is now being utilized as a vehicle for addressing health issues around the world. Used as a tool to help break customary values and longstanding traditions, soccer is promoting HIV awareness in many separate parts of Africa.
In the Nkomazi district of South Africa, medical workers believe that 65 percent of people in the adolescent and young adult age group carry HIV. In this culture, HIV is extremely frowned upon and disregarded, and denial is often the easiest solution for victims of the condition. People who admit to having the disease are often ridiculed by their family and friends and considered outcasts.
In the last five years however, there has been an increase in the awareness of the virus, the options for treatment, and information passed on concerning how to limit its transmission, all accomplished through the sport of soccer. Spearheaded by former Stanford assistant coach, Sarah Noftsinger, the initiative has established a soccer league that runs in over five villages with over 2,500 participants and 160 teams that promote the spread of knowledge of HIV and AIDS. In the league, players receive instruction from trained coaches about topics such as HIV, domestic violence and self-confidence. Players are offered incentives such as nicer jerseys and uniforms for attending these sessions, as well as subjecting themselves to HIV testing after games to make sure they stay in prime athletic condition.
Similar to Noftsinger’s efforts in South Africa, another organization that has now started making tremendous strides towards linking soccer with HIV and AIDS education is Grassroot Soccer. Founded by a small group of French professional soccer players, this project has developed an interactive curriculum that promotes soccer-themed HIV prevention through a so-called “Skillz Curriculum.” By conducting small drills on the soccer field that relate to HIV, the program appeals to many youth who love the sport and can benefit more from the education than from traditional classroom learning. For example, participants set up a bunch of cones that each represent a certain HIV related risk. If a player hits a cone while dribbling, each teammates must do pushups or run, showing how one’s personal mistake affects the rest of the family and community. Coaches are there to help raise awareness regarding all the issues accompanied by HIV, in addition to supporting their team, testing the players regularly, and of course helping them improve their soccer ability.
Many evaluations, conducted by universities such as Stanford and Johns Hopkins have shown that Grassroots is having a positive impact on knowledge and social stigmas related to HIV. Behavioral studies have shown that Grassroot program graduates were nearly six times less likely to engage in activities that could lead to the transmission of HIV. Grassroot has now expanded its programs into several countries in Africa such as Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania, and the group is hoping to take their mission and success story to other continents as well.
With the variety of cultures, ideals and traditions in the world that differ from region to region, philanthropists, doctors and leaders often find it difficult to promote wellness and change stigmas that already exists regarding healthcare. Sports are an underlying aspect of society found in every culture, making them a perfect vehicle for change and reform. Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, and is now just beginning to be utilized to benefit society in ways besides competition and entertainment. The potential that it possesses to change the world is endless, and we are only now starting to exploit it.
For anyone who would like to get involved, feel free to check out Grassroot’s website and see what you can do today!
Image by digitalrob70