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24-hour soccer benefit takes aim at AIDS in Africa

Wellesley residents (from left) Ian Speers, and Owen and Peter Diana are gearing up for Friday’s 24-hour event raising money for Grassroot Soccer. Wellesley residents (from left) Ian Speers, and Owen and Peter Diana are gearing up for Friday’s 24-hour event raising money for Grassroot Soccer. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Evan Allen
Globe Correspondent / August 14, 2011

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The middle of the night is an unlikely time to find a hundred people playing soccer - barefoot.

But beginning Friday evening, Hunnewell Fields in Wellesley will be illuminated stadium-style and swarming with adrenaline-filled soccer players, all running, kicking, and dribbling for a cause: to stop the spread of AIDS in Africa.

It’s 24 Hours of Barefoot Soccer, a fund-raising event that was staged for the first time last year by Peter and Owen Diana, a father and son from Wellesley. The inaugural event raised nearly $10,000 for a Vermont-based charity called Grassroot Soccer.

Grassroot Soccer teaches African children about AIDS - what it is, how it’s spread, how to avoid it - using soccer games to get them to pay attention. Simple passing drills become lessons on how quickly and invisibly AIDS can move from one person to another.

Folk heroes among African youths are most often soccer players, says David Harrison, assistant to Grassroot Soccer’s chief executive officer, “so by engaging people who are players and coaches we are engaging role models with whom youth can identify.’’

At the 24-hour Wellesley event, players donate a minimum of $25 to Grassroot Soccer, the cost of enrolling one African child in the program. This year, the Dianas hope to raise $15,000 - enough to help educate 600 children.

Players can sign up in advance online at www.24hoursofsoccer.com, or they can show up with their donation at Hunnewell Fields, on Washington Street near Wellesley High School.

“We’re trying to give back to a people and a place that I’ve never been to and that’s many, many miles away,’’ said Owen Diana, 16. “At the same time, that goal is being accomplished in a community that I know very well. It’s a feeling that’s hard to explain but it’s very exciting.’’

The Dianas started 24 Hours of Soccer as a way to spend more time together, but they say it has morphed into a way to bring the whole community together.

Strangers catch sight of their yellow and green T-shirts - bright homage to two of the most popular colors found in African flags - and ask when the next event is. And they aren’t bothering with paid advertising this time around: Word of mouth, social networking, and a few strategically placed banners are enough.

The soccer marathon will last from 6 p.m. Friday until 6 p.m. Saturday. The games are played on smaller-than-standard fields, with fewer than 11 players on each team and no goalies. The players range in age from fourth-graders to adults, and teams are coed. Everybody gets a T-shirt.

There is no minimum or maximum playing time. Last year, individual players stayed on the field for as little as one hour and as long as 17 - a feat pulled off by 16-year-old Michael Youniss.

“The next day I couldn’t really walk, it felt like I didn’t have muscles left,’’ he said. “I’ll try for 18 this year.’’

The games are played barefoot in solidarity with the children they’re raising money for, who often can’t afford shoes.

“It reminds everybody that this is something different from a normal soccer game,’’ said Peter. “There’s something bigger going on.’’

Big enough to attract the likes of Chris Tierney, who plays for the New England Revolution. Tierney is a Wellesley native, and has traveled to Africa with Grassroot Soccer. This year, for the second time, he will be returning to his hometown to play barefoot for 24 Hours of Soccer.

Organizing the event has been a huge undertaking. The Dianas have been working since January with two of Owen’s close soccer buddies, Ian Speers and Lee Wickham, and their families to get everything set up: fields reserved, banners made, food donated.

This year, Whole Foods, the Linden Store, Bruegger’s Bagels, and Roche Brothers grocery stores are supplying snacks and drinks. Health Advances LLC in Weston is covering the shirts, and liability insurance - which costs upwards of $600 - for the event is being taken care of by private donations.

All of the money raised will go directly to Grassroot Soccer.

“There is a soccer family that’s out there internationally, and certainly there is a soccer family out there in the United States,’’ said Harrison. “It’s the universal game.’’

Also universal is the love that teenagers have for staying up all night. Last year, high school students descended en masse on the fields after midnight. The referees gave up: Players were having too much fun, and 12-person games became 100-person games.

Owen Diana remembers feeling a part of something larger than himself. The temperature dropped and some players put on their socks. They all drank lots of coffee.

“My favorite part and my least favorite part are the same thing, and that’s staying up all night - I’m not a high school student anymore,’’ said his father. But “that was the best thing about it - that we all saw the sun go down and everybody was playing, and the sun came up and people were still playing.’’