WATCH | Meet South Africa's soccer grannies

01 July 2018 - 00:00 By PENWELL DLAMINI
Meriam Mushwana, 65, from Nkowakowa in Tzaneen, is one of two grannies who were invited to Russia to show off their soccer skills.
Meriam Mushwana, 65, from Nkowakowa in Tzaneen, is one of two grannies who were invited to Russia to show off their soccer skills.
Image: Masi Losi

It's midday on Monday and players have started arriving at the soccer ground in
Zone 8, Seshego, Polokwane. They wear green soccer jerseys, black tights and soccer boots. Pink doeks cover their grey hair.

As the doeks suggest, this is no ordinary soccer team. These are the Limpopo grannies who have made headlines across the world.

Two have just returned from the Soccer World Cup in Russia, where they were invited to "teach them about soccer for grannies".

Among those on the Seshego field is Orlando Pirates supporter Johanna Mokgalabone, 67, of Batsofebatsofe Unlimited. She's a big fan of Argentinian star Lionel Messi and is supporting his team in the World Cup.

Mokgalabone, who has two grandchildren, never misses a training session and says the game has changed her life.

"Sometimes the little one [aged 11 months] does not want to sleep. I then play with him on my back," she said. "I would advise every gogo to play soccer. After every training session I feel better."

Their soccer field has no grass. It is dusty and gravelly.

The training session is a friendly match between two locals teams. The team in green are the Seshego Golden Ladies, while the Batsofebatsofe players don T-shirts and red doeks.

Vakhegula Vakhegula is South Africa’s very own team of grannies who are making headlines all around the world because of their soccer skills.

But, most important, they are Vakhegula Vakhegula, which simply means "grannies" in Tsonga. It's a name all the granny teams in Limpopo have embraced as they begin a journey towards a senior citizens national team.

When play finally gets under way, the women, aged between 50 and 80, impress with their speed and agility. Some fall down in the tackles but simply stand up, dust themselves off and continue.

Teammates Anna Kgofelo, 70, and Meriam Mushwana, 65, returned from Russia last Friday. They were invited to the Grannies Summer Football Championships but did not get to take part because there was not enough money to send the entire team. However, they did join a grannies team called Buranovskie Babushki for a friendly game.

"My kids were very excited. They printed out all the pictures shared on Facebook which were taken in Russia," said Kgofelo, who has 12 grandchildren and joined the team in 2012.

She said the township locals had welcomed her back home as if she had won the World Cup.

"It was like a wedding. Going to Russia was a great experience. They welcomed us with so much love."

Kgofelo is diabetic and has high blood pressure, but said soccer had improved her health. "Before I started playing soccer, twice I was fetched by an ambulance from my home. But since I started playing, I feel younger and am enjoying my best health."

Vakhegula Vakhegula is the umbrella name for the dream team that team founder, philanthropist and Munghana Lonene FM presenter Beka Ntsanwisi wants to assemble one day — a Bafana Bafana of grannies.

Her dream began in September 2007 when she fell ill and went to hospital. There were many elderly women there, all complaining of backache.

Ntsanwisi proposed an exercise group to help rid them of their ailments. They chose an outdoor spot in Tzaneen.

"Boys were playing soccer nearby. Their ball came to us. The first granny went for it. She missed. She then tried again and it did not go far. But they were so excited about kicking the ball that the next day they challenged the boys to play with them," she said.

"Only three boys pitched [but] the excitement was so huge we thought, let us start a soccer team where only grannies will play. That is how Vakhegula Vakhegula started."

In less than three months, 90 grannies had joined, the oldest aged 85. But there was some resistance, with some community members worried the gogos would get hurt.

There were also cultural and religious issues. "In our culture a granny can't wear short pants. Some of them also complained that their churches don't allow women of their age to wear pants. So we started playing soccer with skirts. But later they understood and we began wearing shorts. Oh, they looked so good in their shorts," Ntsanwisi said.

But the gogos still wear doeks, as they believe it is inappropriate for an elderly woman not to cover her head.

The team became so well known that they were invited to the US after the 2010 Soccer World Cup. They were hosted by the US Adult Soccer Association. "After that, we got calls from various provinces to come and motivate grannies to play soccer," said team director Timothy Madibana.

Ntsanwisi has since visited KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and North West to motivate grannies to start teams there.

She has also helped establish teams in 12 districts in the Tzaneen area. Next month she and her team will host a delegation of retired footballers from France, who will be filming a documentary on Vakhegula Vakhegula.

GREAT GOALS

The soccer grannies of Limpopo even have their own website, www.soccergrannies.com, where people can donate towards uniforms and travel. A documentary about them, Alive and Kicking, has won 21 film awards since its release in 2016. It was directed by South Africa-bornLara-Ann de Wet.

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