Posted by Jemele Hill
JOHANNESBURG -- Team USA is still alive in the World Cup.
In Alexandra Township, one of the most impoverished areas in Johannesburg, FIFA is hosting the seven-day Football for Hope Festival -- a tournament with 32 teams from various countries featuring young players with backgrounds as underprivileged as some of the children in the township.
This American delegation is made up of teenagers from different parts of the country and they represent three different grassroots soccer organizations -- the Starfinder Foundation, Soccer in the Streets and the Urban Soccer Collective. Not only do these organizations teach kids to appreciate the beautiful game, but they use soccer to teach them about what's important in life.
They don't want to unearth the next Landon Donovan as much as they want the next college graduate.
"They have used the sport to acquire additional skills that carry over into other parts of their life," said Jill Robbins, executive director for Soccer in the Streets and a Team USA chaperone. "They're rising college students. It's very exciting to see how each of our leaders was chosen and how they have come together."
Notice Robbins said "leaders," not athletes.
Team USA has been in Johannesburg for over a week, and as you might expect, the experience has been a lot like summer camp. The kids had never met before South Africa. Most days, they wake up at 6 a.m. but must be in bed by 11 p.m.
"Sometimes we get along and sometimes we don't," said Mustafa Alpha, an 18-year-old from Philadelphia who emigrated from Sierra Leone. "We're just getting to know each other and learning how to play with each other."
The soccer end of things hasn't turned out as well as Team USA would have liked. The team has struggled in the group phase, winning just one match. The team lost one of its best players early in the tournament and couldn't recover. Jose Fonseca, an 18-year-old from Atlanta, was kicked in the face while trying to head a ball and suffered a small fracture in his cheek.
Even with a swelled cheek and a bout with the flu, Fonseca still wouldn't trade the experience he's had in Africa.
"A lot of people talk about South Africa like it's a bad country," Fonseca said. "It's not really that bad. It's a great country."