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Soccer, safety and science: why evidence is key


Christina Laurenzi, Mark Tomlinson, Zwelibanzi Skiti and Mary Jane Rotheram-Borus

Sports-based violence prevention programmes have broad appeal, including among police, policy makers and politicians. This policy brief presents a case study of the Eyethu Soccer League, a behavioural intervention that was carefully planned, implemented and evaluated – and yet did not achieve its aims.

Findings caution against ‘easy wins’ and suggest that short-term skills-building programmes may struggle to solve structural challenges.

Key findings

  • Eyethu was designed as a gender-tailored intervention targeting young men at risk for violence, HIV and the use of substances.

  • Participants were either part of the Eyethu programme (confronting norms around conflict resolution, sexual risk and substance use), or a control arm for comparison that did not receive any intervention.

  • After six months, researchers found few effects on participants’ risk behaviour. Men who were part of the programme did not show a reduction in their use of alcohol, marijuana, or tik, although there was a very small reduction in mandrax use. There were no reported changes in perpetrating violence, HIV testing, risky sexual behaviours or mental health.

  • At least 16 participants were murdered over the course of the study.

  • Short-term gains observed during the programme disappeared after the December holidays when participants were likelier to enter risky situations.

  • Even the best planned, well-resourced interventions may not work. Spending time, resources and expertise on this programme did not achieve its aims of preventing violence and reducing risky substance use and HIV risk behaviours among participants.

  • Negative findings still offer important lessons. For example, social skills-based programmes are often unable to disrupt many of the factors that shape negative outcomes.

  • Better tailoring programmes to target specific groups may be the best way to allocate limited resources.


  • Resource-intensive social programmes should be informed by the best available evidence. They should be planned and implemented in ways that generate evidence.

  • When designing and adapting programmes for at-risk groups, negative findings can assist with a ‘process of elimination’– where shortcomings and challenges can be documented to explore why the programmes were not effective. These kinds of disappointing outcomes can reveal most about how to improve programmes.

  • Social skills-based programmes are often unable to disrupt the factors that shape negative outcomes. However, structural interventions may be able to safeguard some of these programmes’ positive impacts. For example, ensuring that public services such as policing are connected to social development and employment interventions may help deal with these challenges in a unified way.

  • Implementing programmes like Eyethu with younger populations may lead to more promising results. However, this approach cannot be seen as a standalone solution.

  • Place, community, and context are important. A programme that does not work in one area may work well in another. Identifying the reason for success or failure is crucial to building evidence for effective intervention and applying it where it is most needed.

For more insights, download the policy brief here

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