SOUTH AFRICA: Footballers join AIDS fight

Photo: Matchboxology
Footballers for Life coach, Enrico Bhana, conducts an outreach session at the Stars of Africa Footballers Academy
Witbank, 5 May 2009 (PlusNews) - After a demanding training session on the soccer pitch, the entire Black Aces football team has squeezed into a small, stuffy room at the club's headquarters in Witbank, a town northeast of Johannesburg, South Africa, for training of a different kind.

The men are in various states of repose, leaning back in their seats and resting long legs on chairs, but the air is buzzing with testosterone and the repressed energy of men who are more accustomed to expressing themselves with their feet.

Ronny Londi, a former player with the Orlando Pirates, one of South Africa's most adored soccer teams, is leading a discussion on what it means to be a man.

"I have the right to refuse if my girlfriend wants to use a condom," responds one of the players. "When I respect my wife, she takes advantage; she thinks she can do anything she wants," says another.

These are the attitudes that Londi and seven other ex-professional football players are trying to change through a project called Footballers for Life, which kicked off earlier this year with funding from USAID and the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) through Johns Hopkins Health and Education in South Africa (JHHESA), a local NGO affiliated to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the United States.

In South Africa, as in many other countries, football clubs like the Aces have huge numbers of fans, particularly young men, and talented players suddenly find themselves in the spotlight with little or no preparation and relatively large salaries.

"When you never had R1,000 (US$120) and suddenly you're earning R20,000 (US$2,400), you have access to things you never had before, like women, drugs and alcohol," said Londi. "It exposes them to a number of risks."

Several South African players have died from AIDS-related illnesses, according to Londi, but there has been little official acknowledgement or guidance from football clubs.

When he could not get an HIV awareness campaign off the ground through the South African Football Players' Union, Londi approached corporate social responsibility specialists Matchboxology to help him design and implement a programme.

In weekly sessions over the course of a year, Londi and his fellow coaches will educate players about how to manage their finances as well as their sudden sex appeal.

Project manager Claire Rademeyer said the goal was to help players reduce their HIV risk, and also to capitalise on their role-model status. "Given that men are very hard to crack [reach with HIV/AIDS education] and men are dominant in football, it makes sense to use players to influence other men," said Londi.

''Everywhere we go, you need to have a girlfriend...The girls throw themselves at you and everything comes easy''
Only one member of the Black Aces team is from Witbank; the rest are from other parts of South Africa and even from outside the country.

Goalkeeper Bafana Nhlapo has lived in four of South Africa's nine provinces since he went professional eight years ago. "Everywhere we go, you need to have a girlfriend, so we were at too much risk. The girls throw themselves at you and everything comes easy," he said.

Like many players, he has found a long-term relationship difficult. "I paid lobola [dowry] for my girlfriend, but she left me because I was never there. Now I'm concentrating on my career."

Collen Tlemo, another coach at Footballers for Life, said most players were single and living far from their families. "They go training in the morning and later they're not doing anything so they'll go around the [shopping] malls, and that's where they meet girls."

Nearly one in five adults in South Africa are living with the virus, so several of the players attending the course in Witbank may be HIV positive without knowing it.

One player said he was considering getting tested, but wasn't sure how he would handle a positive result. A team mate advised against it, saying, "Just make sure you have a nice life". Another suggested that "it's wise to test so you can live longer and carry on playing football". By the end of the session he had decided to have an HIV test.

The Black Aces are one of only two clubs to have signed on for the free training. Although three others are expected to join the programme soon, Rademeyer said persuading the clubs to give players time out of their training schedules was an uphill battle.

Londi is exasperated that more clubs aren't using the programme, and the influence of the players on their fans, to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS. "We're trying to encourage a change in the industry ... football players can't live the way we were living 10 years ago."


Theme (s): HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Prevention - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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