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Playing the youth teams of Waschbank is my lasting World Cup memory

Ian Burrell

PHOT0004 300x225 Playing the youth teams of Waschbank is my lasting World Cup memoryExpectation Mr Rooney, I’ll give you expectation. Before we’d even put our boots on, the local populace had taken to the street to celebrate our mythical football talents.
Boys had awaited our arrival in the midday sun. As our small convoy finally came into sight on the Matlala Road, deep in the bushveld of Limpopo province near South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe, they waved British flags and sounded their vuvuzelas in delight.

The girls of the village, in matching pink turbans, shuffled a dance of greeting with their percussion instruments, fashioned from refuse bags and small stones, fastened to their ankles. Would that we were so creative, so nimble of foot!

As we climbed the glass strewn path up the hill to the Waschbank community pitch, the village flocked to be beside us. Small children followed in our wake, elderly women carried aloft the chairs they would place at the touchline to watch the ensuing game and our frighteningly youthful opposition exhibited their impressive ball skills in the hope that we would recommend them to Stamford Bridge or Old Trafford.

We had travelled to South Africa primarily to watch the world’s best professionals play for Brazil, Spain and Germany. That night we would travel to the stadium at Polokwane to watch Lionel Messi’s Argentina. But it was the experience of playing the youth teams of Waschbank would be our most lasting memory of the 2010 World Cup.

waschbank game 2 300x216 Playing the youth teams of Waschbank is my lasting World Cup memoryWe’d had the presumption to dress in a specially-designed kit, a garish shirt quartered in the orange of Luton Town, the green of Plymouth Argyle, Portsmouth blue and Liverpool red, with the white sleeves of Arsenal, sadly all affiliations derived from the terraces rather than the field of play. The pretence couldn’t last forever.

Our first opponents, the City Brothers, were a Masonic-sounding outfit with secret powers in retaining possession. Our forty-something limbs were creaking and the sound of mocking laughter floated down from the wooden stands. One-nil to the Brothers.

We muttered about the heat, the altitude, and the pitch – balder than any one of us. So fine was the soil that every tackle and every pass created a huge cloud of dust, like a battlefield explosion. Our rare sorties up the pitch must have resembled Captain Mainwaring taking Dad’s Army over the top. Who did we think we were kidding? Two-nil to the Brothers.

By the second half we were getting acclimatised, keeping the final score to an almost respectable 1-3 before allowing the Brothers to take on their Waschbank rivals, the Eleven Experience, who we would only play when they were suitably exhausted. The plan worked and after a goalless draw we celebrated a 7-5 win on penalties.

PHOT0014 300x225 Playing the youth teams of Waschbank is my lasting World Cup memoryAfter which we got to see Waschbank beyond the football field. The local chief Rosetta Maraba, presided over a feast of tripe and pap (mielie-meal made from maize), a rare treat when meat is a weekly luxury.

In an isolated village, with crippling levels of illiteracy, significant problems with HIV and few employment prospects beyond farm labouring, the Waschbank Community Centre is a gateway to a better life. Its motto is Re A Itirela (“We are doing it for ourselves” in the Sepedi language), and it is dedicated to teaching villagers to read and write, to master computer skills and to find ways of starting their own small businesses.

The local economy is being bolstered by local people offering tourists the chance to stay in their homes. Not only did our landlady give us a charming room, but two pales of water, one cold and one heated to near boiling point on her garden bonfire. Decanting the two, while sat in the tin bath provided, was as challenging as it was invigorating.

The internet and tourism will help to connect Waschbank to the wider world but the ability of football to achieve a similar purpose should not be discounted. The game might increasingly be seen as rotten in the land of its inception but in rural South Africa it is unquestionably a force for good.

After the meal we moved to the village bar, a rollover garage empty except for a few milk crates and a television. The shebeen owner brought bottles of Hansa beer as the lock-up filled with excited villagers, thrilled at the sight of the South African national side, the Bafana Bafana, outclassing the former world champions France.

White people, let alone foreigners, are unusual visitors in these parts and we were told that our football tourism had given encouragement to the village.

At this World Cup, the chosen sport of the black majority – frowned on during the apartheid years – has put South Africa at the centre of the world. Throughout the country, among both whites and blacks, this is a source of undisguised pride. The tournament is expected to generate a $100m windfall for the country’s football authorities and hopefully some of it will filter through to rural areas where the game plays an important role.

Up on the Waschbank football field, the village’s key source of recreation (save for a vaulting horse made from a piece of rock), helps unite the young men in a community where many fathers have died young. When the City Brothers and the Eleven Experience play against nearby villages, Waschbank climbs the grassy incline to give them its support. “Soccer is loved,” said Mapule Molatjane, a village community worker. “With these kids it’s not about money, it’s about the love of it.”

For further information on staying in Waschbank, visit www.classact.org.za

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