Soweto's inspiring soccer gogos risk losing their home field to developers
The Phefeni Gogos are fighting to keep their practice ground open, not only for their badass selves, but thousands of local kids too
The field is like the idea of a field. In breadth and length it approximates what a field should look like. But in the washed-out light of this mid-winter morning the field is hard going. It is dusty. It is messy around the edges. The field bleeds into the roads that mark out its dimensions like osmosis.
The houses that border this field feel invested in it. As if they are one with it. A derelict church abuts the right quadrant. Field adjacent. Sitting in the sun is a man on a chair, watching the morning's activity. The field is loud with the exertions of the soccer team, hard at play. The coach is shouting directions from the heart of the action. The captain, the only one in uniform, takes a shot at goal. The kit is a gift from her grandson. This is his uniform. He is a pro. She should be.
The field is where Kaizer Chiefs got their start
These are the Phefeni Gogos. The field is their patrimony. Most of them were born in the streets abutting the field, or moved here as young girls sometime after 1930 when Orlando East was declared a township. The field is where Kaizer Chiefs got their start. Everyone knows it. They watched history happen. This is where the Phefeni Glamour Boys morphed into Amakhosi. This rough beginning sprinkles the field with a kind of football magic dust. The gogos point out the house where Kaizer Motaung's parents live. On Sentso Street. It is purplish in the early light.
The gogos are wrapping up their exertions. The game has wound down and now they stretch, they do lunges and squats, and star jumps in a great big circle. They laugh and chatter. They delight in the morning. Ebullient with the flush of rushing blood, and competition. They are in high spirits. Endorphins.
They introduce themselves. Ida Mothokoa, 81, "Still going strong"; Sarah Thobazana, 69, "70 in July"; Wandi Buti, 52, inspired to join the team by Thoko Mngomezulu, 73; Thoko Mlinganiso, 62, an old hand - "I started to play the ball when I was very young"; Matilda Zodwa Mazibuko, 79, "One month to 80"; Rachel Mokgosi, 73; goalie Georgina Shilenge and the captain, Phuti Semenya, 75. Wiry, athletically built, a founding member of the Phefeni Gogos and a great recruiter. She just signed Thulo, who is deaf and brings over a note bearing her date of birth. March 10 1947.
They bristle with energy. "We are all chronics." Shorthand for people with high blood pressure, diabetes and other life-threatening illnesses of the aged. The daily exercise - they are here four mornings a week - at 7am in winter and 6.30am in summer - "is our last hope, or we die", says Shilenge.
"Football keeps us awake, alive, and strong instead of sitting down in your house and watching TV. When my bones are aching, I go to practice. We respect this place. We don't call it a dusty ground."
When my bones are aching, I go to practice. We respect this place. We don't call it a dusty groundGeorgina Shilenge, goalie of the Phefeni Gogos
And they are prepared to fight for it too. The desolate church - they claim - is an interloping "johnny come lately". It was built in 1957 - years after the field and the rest of the township. This field does not belong to the church, they explain - it predates it. "This field is our heritage." They announce in unison.
The field is now a contested piece of land - sold by the church to developers who wanted to put houses on the land. But who were stopped by the community. The battle is ongoing.
They are not just fighting for the right to practise on the field. This "dusty ground" also serves 10 schools in the immediate vicinity that have no other fields for the children to play or practise on: Mzamo Primary, Mbuyisa Makhubo Primary, Kwa Ntsikana Junior Secondary, Phefeni Senior Secondary, Orlando West High, Dzata Primary, Mawila Primary, Tzumbezo Primary, Lamula Jubilee Secondary and Veritas High.
I get the list on WhatsApp from Mqusi Manana. He is the Phefeni Gogo's coach.
His WhatsApp profile picture is a SuperDad logo styled like the classic Superman avatar.
I am inclined to agree.
He comes to coach the gogos every morning before work as a community organiser at the Phefeni community centre a block away. They adore him. For obvious reasons. But also, I imagine, because he is the ultimate professional.
When they formed the team at the insistence of Thoko, 62, not to be confused with Thoko, 73, he explained: "It's going to be slow, it's going to be hard, but if people see us they will join. If we practise every morning with passion, and build the structure, lots of amazing things will follow."
I can see his point about slow and hard. The Phefeni Gogos have had a tough time of it in the league - the Soweto Senior Citizen's soccer league. They are up against some tough competition. Of the 16 teams that compete, one in particular has their attention, being full of young guns "all at least 10 years younger than us". Another, the Pimville Gogos, took them 6-1 in a devastating loss. They drew against G Lovers FC.
Most of these teams have some form of sponsorship, and kit. A team of gogos from Limpopo even made it to the World Cup. These are goals.
But what the Phefeni Gogos lack in resources they make up for in vim and vigour and heart. And their coach is a big-hearted dreamer - he sees a three-storey museum on the far edge of the field celebrating the storied history of this place. He imagines a sprinkler system to damp down the dust. And tracks painted in thick white so the children can train properly during athletics season. And uniforms.
Someone grabs my hand and we are hustled into the expansive circle the gogos have formed again. The football is placed reverentially, like a totem, in the middle. They break into a prayer. It is like a rustling of leaves, like a quiet susurration of hope and grace. They are giving thanks. For a morning well spent. And then they break it up and walk home. Laughing.
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