WHAT SPORT MEANS TO ME!
I had the most remarkable encounter last week at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). Their Interdisciplinary Centre of Excellence for Sport Science and Development (a mouthful, but worth every syllable!) was hosting a two-day leadership conference for young women who were leaders and sportswomen. I was graciously invited to attend as an observer by Dr. Marion Keim, director of the Centre. Dr. Keim is an important partner in the Western Cape Sport for Development Network which includes leaders of 41 NGOs and community initiatives from around the greater Cape Town area and beyond. Young women from these organizations were invited to UWC to take part in two days of lectures, trainings, workshops and a soccer tournament during their school holidays. I couldn’t say for sure, but it seemed that nearly 300 young girls participated in the days’ events.
A bit of background, before I continue. When I first moved to Cape Town in 2007, I coached soccer and basketball at the American International School where I taught. Through my involvement with the sports programs there, I began to meet coaches from throughout the city, one of whom also coached a women’s club team in the Landsdowne community quite close to my house. When he found out that I played soccer, he invited me to try out for his development team.
The club was FC Santos, known as “the people’s team”, member of the Premier Soccer League and a middleweight contender for major national tournaments. On the men’s side, at least, FC Santos had a well integrated and hierarchical development program that drew from boys and young men from the age of 6+ to play club soccer. Every age group had at least one if not two teams, and multiple coaches devoted to the players’ technical development. Their under-18 and under-20 teams would often travel overseas or to different parts of the country for clinics. Again, it was only the men’s side that had that structure.
The women’s side was very different. Though Santos was consistently at the top of the log in terms of national play, they really only had two teams: a development team, or second-tier team, on which young women with potential and older women too old to play professionally were mashed together and competed in local leagues; and the elite side, sponsored by SASOL, which was a feeder team for Banyana Banyana. Because of limited space and resources, the two teams played and practiced together, and through the time that I played with Santos I got to know several women that were “called up” to train and try out for Banyana.
Now, mind you, there is a huge skill gap between what I was used to seeing in elite soccer in the States versus what I did see in this “elite” side in South Africa. Women’s sport here is massively underdeveloped, and the girls that do succeed often do so because they grew up playing with boys. There is next to no grassroot, consecutive, age-specific training for young girls. On this particular team, the young players were the target; we older players were there as mules; good enough to practice against, and strong enough to put up a fight. Among the older generation the girls smoked, drank; many of them had kids and played just for fun. Some had seen their day in the limelight and were either too old or too unfit to be considered serious contenders for a national team spot.
It was a bit unusual for a white, blonde, (relatively) tall foreigner to play for FC Santos. In fact, had I not brought my Canadian colleague and co-coach along with me to try-outs, I would have been the only one. It was trial by fire for me to even get acknowledgment at practice. I was viewed – understandably, I see now – with suspicion and a bit of disdain. The girls mocked my accent, my height, my build; they made jokes I didn’t understand in Afrikaans; they tried to teach me choice phrases which I was to employ on the field when there was a foul or a bad call. For the first two practices I was the outsider – the girls had played together before, having come from the same “Cape Coloured” community – and I just did the fitness drills we were instructed to do without complaint. Finally the day arrived when we had access to a pitch and had our first scrimmage. The coach put me in midfield, and by halftime I had two assists and a goal. All of a sudden, I was no longer an outsider. The girls jeered me all the same, but not in the derisive way they had before – I was legit, they could see; I built street cred and was now part of a team.
So, back to the original story. I arrived at UWC on the first morning of the conference and walked upstairs to where the girls and their coaches were having breakfast. I took one look at the group and immediately spotted three young women that I spent two years playing with nearly two years before. I immediately walked over to them and said hello. I could see they didn’t recognize me at first, but eventually they came around and I sat down to catch up on what was happening with the club. They’d changed coaches since I was there, and a few of the former elite players had moved back down to the development team. One of the girl there was coaching full time at a local primary school, as well as playing on the elite squad. The other two were young – technically maybe too young to even be considered for the elite team – but excellent players and up-and-coming stars for Santos. They explained that our former captain and manager had fallen pregnant again and would probably not be coming back next season. They’d once again captured the title at the biggest national tournament the previous year and were heavy favorites going into the next bout.
Perhaps the best part of our conversation was when the youngest girl, whom I played midfield with, said, “Hey, you know? I just got back from America.”
“Really?” I asked, wondering how on earth she would have made or afforded that type of trip. “What for?”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said, chewing gum and smiling wryly, “I was there for two weeks. New York, New Jersey, and Washington DC! We even had a tour of the White House!”
Clink. Things falling into place. “The White House? How did you organize that?”
“Yeah, we were there with the State Department… um, you know, Sports United or something like that. Yeah, I even got to meet Hillary Clinton! I mean, I didn’t know who she was at first, but then when we were walking through the White House I saw a huge painting of her on the wall and figured out she must be important.”
Um, yeah, just a bit. As it happens, my former teammate was sitting in the room when Hillary Clinton announced the Women’s World Cup initiative in early June. I was astounded, but excited beyond belief, that she had that opportunity, and that it was soccer that brought her there.
I wanted to retell this story because I think it demonstrates everything I have come to appreciate about sport in a real way. Through sport I have gained confidence, become fitter, faster, stronger, mentally and physically. I have crossed cultural divides. I have learned to stand up to men, to break gender barriers, changing perceptions about what women can do, what women’s soccer is all about. I have made friends and built networks, something that’s nearly as important in South Africa as it is in DC. Sport is a language that transcends other social structures. I am only grateful for having been exposed to it at an early age, and I am thankful that the women I met at UWC have had that exposure as well. I only hope that they are able to hold on to this opportunity and make the most of it; they won’t all be Banyana stars, but I’m sure they will be stronger women and better leaders for it.
[As an aside, as part of our membership in the Santos club we were expected to attend biweekly life skill sessions at the clubhouse. We constantly bunked and would come up with any excuse imaginable to get out of it. Ironic, I think, considering the nature of my research this summer.]
And I can’t end this post without saying a huge CONGRATULATIONS to the US Women for their remarkable consecutive defeats over Brazil and France. They are an inspiration to women and soccer players around the world!