The Africa Cup of Nations, as it always does, has captured the attention of the entire continent this month. Although Uganda did not qualify after being cruelly knocked out by Zambia after a penalty shoot out, the sound of the matches taking place in South Africa fills bars from Kampala to Kanungu.
Our ‘Arsenal in the Community’ coaches have experienced this passion for football – or soccer to our American readers – over their first couple of weeks coaching children in Uganda.
From pitches overlooking a panoramic view of the slums of Kampala to the small areas of precious farm land set aside for the national sport in Kanungu, our coaches have trained kids who have the same desire to improve their skills and dreams of making a career in the sport they love that we see in children the world over. But there the similarities end.
Plastic bags or the leaves of a banana tree are used to make footballs; the sight of brothers playing with one boot on their favoured foot as they share the one pair they can afford is not uncommon; matches of 15, 20, 25 a side can be chaotic but playing is all that matters. It is dusty and very different.
Volunteer Uganda’s partnership with Arsenal helps to bridge the gap between the desire to learn and the lack of facilities, equipment and trained coaches. New balls, bibs, cones, whistles, all the kit needed to improve skills have travelled with our trained coaches.
The kids that were coached at the Kampala rehab centre, in a football project designed to steer them away from drugs and other substance abuse, were thrilled to have coaches from a Premiership football club taking drills and organising matches. Always questions, questions, questions – “what team do you support, which position do you play, how many keepy-uppys can you do?” – enthusiasm, energy and excitement.
From the bustling urban setting of Kampala kids league, our coaches moved to the more sedate rural fields in Kazuru, the closest pitch to the Volunteer Uganda lodge. The setting changed but the enthusiasm for football and for learning did not. After a broadcast on KBS radio, over 100 kids turned up for a coaching session.
Notably, around a fifth of these children were girls. In a country where girls rarely get the opportunity to play football in schools, the desire to stand shoulder to shoulder with boys on the football pitch was clear, playing in skirts and never afraid of a 50/50 challenge!
Their interest in two of our coaches, in particular, was clear to see – “female coaches, here?”
If Cheryl and Kate have inspired just one of the twenty or so girls who turned up to train to dream of being a coach in Uganda in the future then the ‘Arsenal in the Community’ programme will have served its founding purpose – bringing new players, better players and, most of all, inspiration to developing countries.
With luck, and the new equipment, improved skills and trained coaches, this group of Arsenal volunteers and those who follow them in the coming years will ensure that Uganda’s future qualification for the Africa Cup of Nations will not be left to the lottery of a penalty shoot out.