Michael is a lucky young man. He lives in a four-bed villa in the Green Community, he gets a top-notch education at GEMS Wellington International School and he spends almost every minute of his free time playing football, a sport he adores, with his friends. Come July, he escapes Dubai’s blistering heat and heads for the fresh chill in southern Africa to go quad biking, fishing and, yes, you guessed it, play more footie, at his grandparents’ beach-side home in Swakopmund, Namibia.
It’s the privileged existence of an expat kid, and a far cry from the lives of his teammates and opponents in the Swakopmund kick-abouts who, living close to the poverty line, often play without socks or boots. Thankfully, Michael’s football-booted feet are firmly planted on the ground.
‘I play loads of football here and in Swakopmund,’ the talented player, who once trained for a week with Serie A giants AC Milan, tells Time Out Kids. ‘All the players there play barefoot. It can be really cold in Namibia and sometimes you can’t see 10 metres in front of you because it’s really foggy. They don’t complain, though. They’re just happy to be playing.’
But the Liverpool fan wasn’t happy. Not at all. Rummaging in his kit he found a pair of boots which, way too small for him but still perfectly good, were doing nothing. The irony of the situation was not lost on him and he decided that instead of just grumbling about the injustice of it all, he could actually make a difference.
Michael, whose playing idols include Cristiano Ronaldo for talent and Steven Gerrard for leadership, approached his parents and school for advice on how to get his ‘Boots for Africa’ idea off the ground. He started with leaflets and, before he knew it, he was standing in front of a packed assembly hall appealing for help. He adds: ‘I then laid out boxes in the school for people to put their boots in – not new boots, just any old boots, anything they weren’t using any more or had grown out of.’ In the space of three weeks, Michael had collected 50 pairs – more than enough to kit out the Swakopmund FC youth team, and young social players in a nearby settlement.
Poor old dad was handed the task of lugging the boots from Dubai to Namibia. But it was worth it, as Michael tells: ‘There was a small boy who was a huge Arsenal fan. He had really small feet, though, but we managed to find him some boots and socks. We also had a few kits from Arsenal and Manchester United, and when we found him an Arsenal shirt, well, you should’ve seen the smile on his face.’
Gerald Guther, sport and recreation officer at Swakopmund Municipality says, ‘It took a great kid with a big heart and passion for football to get this going. He sure has put a lot of smiles on some of the talented youngsters running around in Swakopmund.’
Michael’s school is also incredibly proud. ‘We’re in a bit of a bubble in Dubai. In general it’s very important that students realise how lucky they are and how they can support children who are disadvantaged,’ says Jason King, head of Secondary at Wellington International School. ‘Michael has been really pro-active. He’s got off his back and done something. That whole experience has made him a better person and it shows that it’s not just qualifications and academic achievement that get
you noticed. He’s a bright lad, he’ll be successful. From a school’s perspective we’re really proud of what he did – it’s a reflection of the school’s values – but we’re equally proud of him as a person.’
What’s so impressive about Michael is that he’s just a normal, down-to-earth kid who plays football at least six days a week for three different teams and enjoys swimming and eating with his friends at Chilis. And yet he’s proof that ordinary folk can do extra-ordinary things.
Michael confesses he’s learned a lot from the experience, but he looks awkward when we describe his initiative as inspirational. ‘Dubai and Namibia are both in the desert but they’re totally different. Dubai is just sheer luxury,’ he observes. ‘Collecting the boots has made me realise that I should be very happy with what I’ve got because some people have nothing. I don’t really feel like a hero, I’m just glad to be helping people.’