John Perlman is living his dream of bringing football to youngsters.
Silas Mashava loves working with the players.
Girls are increasingly enjoying playing football.
(Images: Daniel Born/Dreamfields)
• John Perlman
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Thousands of schoolchildren across the country want the holidays to end. There’s one simple reason: a new school term means DreamLeagues kicks in again.
“From everything we’ve heard, in townships and villages around the country, young footballers have been counting the days until DreamLeagues kick off again in the second term,” according to the website.
DreamLeagues are run by Dreamfields, which was launched on a wet and windy day in Orange Farm, in the far south of Johannesburg, in 2007, and so far R34.2-million (US$3.45-million) has been invested in school football.
It is the dream of journalist and talk show host John Perlman, and consists of supplying primary schools with DreamBags. A DreamBag is a large bag filled with 15 pairs of boots and shin guards, and 15 sets of socks, shirts, shorts, and three footballs. Kit is supplied in the colour chosen by the schools, with boots given in the sizes requested.
The schools play weekly football in well-organised leagues, and the standard of play is showing marked improvement. Children in the DreamLeagues – as opposed to one-off tournaments and knockout competitions – derive enormous benefits from sporting activity that is regular and predictable. “They get better at dribbling and passing, shooting and tackling. More important, they learn valuable life lessons, that losing is not disastrous, because the next week and the next game gives you an opportunity to work hard, improve and grow as a player and a team,” says the organisation.
More than 2 200 teams around the country so far have pulled out their kit from DreamBags, bags “full of possibility and promise”, with DreamLeagues being played in the far corners of each province.
Perlman says he started thinking about the idea in early 2006, prompted by the football World Cup in 2010 for which South Africa was preparing at the time. But in truth it goes back further than that.
“My earliest dreams growing up were sparked by football. Life took me down other roads, but it was this beautiful game that first got me dreaming. After a career in journalism, it’s good to be back at the earliest source of my own ambitions,” he writes on the website.
The idea is to supply schools outside of the country’s major cities, in far-flung rural areas where the need is often greater. And although only a fraction of the 20 000 primary schools countrywide have benefited so far, Perlman is happy with progress, saying it’s been important to break it down into “do-ables”. “We are starting to make a dent,” he says.
The dream is shared by several partners. The major sponsor is BHP Billiton, one of the world’s largest resource and mining companies, with major operations in Mpumalanga, Gauteng, the Northern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
“BHP Billiton was the first company to get behind the Dreamfields Project and has committed to supporting schools and youth football until the end of 2015,” explains Perlman. The company first invested R6.5-million ($656 000) in Dreamfields in 2007, with a three-year contract, then renewed its support in 2010 with a five-year contract worth R15-million ($1.5-million). In addition, BHP Billiton has built fields in Richard’s Bay in KwaZulu-Natal, and Kuruman in Northern Cape, and another football pitch being created in Ogies in Mpumalanga.
Other sponsors have come on board, like financial services giant Old Mutual, the Development Bank of Southern Africa, clothing retailer Edcon, banking and insurance provider First Rand, and Absa bank. Funds have also been raised from small businesses, as well as from children in more affluent schools. More than 95% of funds have been raised in South Africa.
But there are other partners too: the departments of Basic Education, and Sports and Recreation, as well as the South African Football Association, with coaching support.
Delivery of DreamBags
Dreamfields focuses on children between the ages of 10 and 12 years. The delivery of the DreamBags to a school is an exciting event. The contents of the large bag are laid out, a bundle per player. Then each player is given his or her bundle, and that’s when things slow down a bit.
When the bag is opened, there is a collective “Wow!” from the kids, says Silas Mashava, who heads Dreamfields’ Sustainable Football Programme. The kids have seen football heroes on TV, and have aspired to be a footballer all their young lives, he says, and now to see the dream laid out in front of them is something hard to contain. “To make that dream a reality is just so magical.” They jump in the air, and take a long time to dress and get ready to run on to the pitch. “This is part of what I want to be, or what I dream of,” Mashava says of what it means to the kids.
“What I love most about Dreamfields is the way the opening of the DreamBags seems to change the mood of the children. They arrive at the DreamEvent looking tentative and quite shy – and then somehow, as each of them gets kitted up, the growing sense of themselves as a team takes hold and confidence begins to flow,” says Perlman.
He recounts an event in Cape Town when a team opened their DreamBag and tried on their kit. The kids said the shoes didn’t fit them, although Dreamfields always gets shoe sizes from the school beforehand. It was a puzzle until he put his hand into the boots, and realised they hadn’t taken the tissue paper out of the toe of the boot. “I realised that they had never had new anything, they had always got hand-me-downs.”
He adds: “DreamBags cost R7 500 ($757), but the inspiration they provide is priceless. We never stop being inspired by the way a DreamBag transforms a group of shy youngsters into a confident team of ten-foot-tall footballers.”
It’s important that the kids realise they’re part of a collective, he emphasises. The trophy is given to the winning team, there are not best player prizes, although each kid gets a participation medal. The kits belong to the school, and are left at the school, so that other kids can use them for their games.
There are no knock-out tournaments, but rather leagues, so they know that every week there’ll be a chance to play a game. “If you win this week, you’re not a winner, if you lose next week, you’re not a loser, you’re just taking part, and it’s up to you next week, you can do better. I think children instinctively understand that,” he explains.
“But the world has got to give them both the predictable and the exceptional. You know that every Wednesday there will be a game, every Tuesday a practice; the exceptional is what you can make of it. If you can get that mix, it’s a recipe for uplifting schools, communities, families, and children in a positive way.”
But many more people benefit from the beautiful game coming to their community. Local women set up food stalls when matches are played; taxi drivers get business from transporting teams; and local artisans get work in the form of making goal posts and stands. Kids not playing may be given paint to emblazon a wall with a message, or make a banner for their team.
Local league obstacles
There are several obstacles that have to be worked through in local school leagues, before schools get to play one another in DreamLeagues, where it’s hoped they will learn the valuable lessons of “discipline, determination and teamwork”.
Transport is always an issue, particularly in the far rural areas. Getting dozens of kids from one side of town to the other to play another school is costly, for schools and parents whose budgets are stretched anyway. And, in some small towns there is no taxi service, so arrangements have to be made to bring in transport.
Another issue is who is going to organise the games. Teachers often commute long distances to schools, so are not prepared to stay for extramural activities, in itself a disputed issue with the Department of Basic Education.
But there are solutions, says Perlman. There are teachers who want to be involved, and see the children play and reap the benefits in confidence and school performance. And for these teachers, that means more job satisfaction – teaching in schools where kids are performing well. Dreamfields invests in these teachers, giving them coaching training, equipment and information, like helping them to draw up fixtures. And, there are government schemes for stipend-based jobs for coaches, aimed at unemployed youth.
But perhaps the biggest solution is that Dreamfields won’t “make big arrangements with huge promises” that can’t be fulfilled. “We promise against a timetable,” says Perlman, with achievable goals. “We need some money, some will, and with a lot systemic solutions we can get things done.”
At first league games were played between schools but now internal leagues within a school are encouraged. This means that the kids are playing every week, allowing more kids to get on the field, in six-a-side teams. And if there’s this kind of buzz in the schools, it rubs off on the teachers too.
And the coaches, says Mashava. “Coaches are becoming more confident and they have a better idea of how to prepare their teams. The schools are becoming a closer community and the top players and coaches enjoy the respect they get as the best primary school team around.”
More and more girls are getting involved in the game. Last year, says Mashava, there were 20 leagues for girls, which means that more than 10% of girls are now playing the game although they are still under-represented. Most are playing netball.
Creating dream fields can be a challenge, considering the maintenance required for a grassed field. As a result, most fields the organisation has created are soil fields. Perlman stresses that fields are only built in communal spaces, so that the local municipality can take responsibility for them. Dreamfields has assisted one school to build its own field, after it raised the money.
The first two soil fields in the project were built in Tshisahulu in Limpopo, with funds supplied by businessman Vhonani Mufamadi, who grew up in the village. One of these fields has been converted to a grass pitch. Subsequently 10 more pitches have been built, two of them in Elliotdale in Eastern Cape, two in Driekoppies in Mpumalanga, and one in Richard’s Bay in KwaZulu-Natal.
Two soil fields in Gopane in North West Province, and two in the Bushbuckridge area in Limpopo, have also been created. A soil field at the Soul City informal settlement near Krugersdorp in Gauteng has been built, funded by Germany and Bayern Munich star Philipp Lahm.
So far 16 dream fields have been built around the country, 13 of them in small towns and rural areas. “Our fields act as hubs for football in disadvantaged communities and as focal points for community upliftment and pride.”
When asked what gives him particular pleasure working for Dreamfields, Mashava goes back to when he was a 12-year-old. “I aspired to be a footballer but we had no kit at school. The first time I played I got boots from my brother; I know the importance of kit.”
This is a dream job for him, he enthuses, that gives him a great sense of pride, to see what the game brings to the kids – “the greatest joy”.
Perlman says in response to the question: “I get really excited when we put together all the parts. I love the children and their excitement. The positive energy and intent often draws in positive people. We have just encountered amazing people with amazing ideas.”
For him it is not just about the next player for Bafana Bafana, the national team. It’s about growing the next Constitutional Court judge, or the next entrepreneur who creates 20 jobs in his panel-beating operation, or the next woman who runs a chain of stores, or the next person who goes to university and becomes a civil engineer. “Football in particular has the potential to make them feel positive about themselves. You learn about winning, you learn about losing.”
In 2011, the team at Dreamfields received an email that “filled our hearts”. It was from Marlise Keyser, a teacher at Ysterplaat Primary School in Cape Town, a school that had received football equipment. She said: “You changed Ysterplaat Primary with one DreamBag.
“That one bag gave the children a purpose, pride, a sense of belonging and responsibility. It’s a great tool for good discipline in the classroom, because as a teacher and coach the kids know that they won’t be allowed to play the next match if they don’t do their work or hand in projects.”
Previously the school offered no sport, and kids were involved in drugs and gangs, with poor discipline the norm. “Today we have four football and four netball teams, regardless of the fact that we don’t have a field to practise on and that we have never played a home match before. We applied for Lotto funding and are hoping for the best.”
A year later, Keyser wrote to say the school had received R180 000 ($18 200) from the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund. “We want to spend our money in the best possible way. Can you please advise us on where we can find an affordable, trustworthy landscaper?”
Perlman sums it up. “At Dreamfields, we believe we’re doing much more than providing the equipment and opportunity to play football, important as that is. Young people need positive activities to complement and reinforce what they are trying to achieve in the classroom. They need positive groups to belong to and constructive activities to fill up their days. They need dreams, all kinds of dreams. And while none may go on to be professional players, the lessons learned on the field as part of a team will help guide them in their later lives – as lawyers and panel beaters, doctors and carpenters, family members and citizens.”