You’ve got to love a job that allows you to take midday-movie breaks, which is exactly what I did today.
On Tuesdays at noon short films are showed in the Grosvenor Auditorium here at NGS for staff and any DC folk who happen to wander in. Today was an hour long film called “Soccer City,” filmed in Alexandra, a township in South Africa’s capital city of Johannesburg. A town-ship is, largely, a slum, although it functions differently than you may think. There are functioning streets in townships (as well as unnamed alleys), electricity, public water pumps, development groups, grocery stores, produce stands, etc. Sewage systems and waste receptacles are varied or nonexistent. Alexandra, nick-named Alex, has a 75% unemployment rate, although many citizens are self-employed by “hawking” items or selling wood, clothing, and food. Like another township in Johannesburg, Soweto (SOuth WEst TOwnship), Alex historically has a reputation for crime and restlessness, driven by hunger and unemployment. This is what is known of Alex, what serves as a common warning to those living or traveling outside of the township. This is how it is perceived. Through this documentary however, filmmaker Nick Fitzhugh seeks to show another, wholly accurate side of Alex, which is a football loving core.
I’ve loved soccer since I was in middle-school, and although I’m barely decent at best, I try not to turn down an opportunity to play. Pick-up games are my favorite; those unofficial matches that take place with two, three, seven on a team, using trees or sweatshirts on the ground to symbolize goals. Geographically, soccer seems as universal as the love for a good meal. Unfortunately here in the U.S. it’s hard to grasp that. As the National Geographic Television staffer who intro’d the film said, “Picture The Superbowl and The World Series combined…the World Cup is bigger than that.” It’s the world’s cheapest sport as well, making it accessible nearly everywhere. Only one piece of equipment is needed, and even that can be fabricated by a home-made “ball” of wrapped up plastic bags (I’ve seen it done).
Through traveling around I’ve jumped into casual pick-up games all over the place with young people from all different kinds of backgrounds and nationalities, once even with some children on a street in Alex, South Africa. Back home at SIU, I once had the privilege to play on a recreational league with a team of international students from Saudi Arabia. I’m ashamed to admit I was nervous about being on their team. In the beginning it’s hard to say what was more intimidating to me, our cultural differences or how great of players they were. I was the first female to join and I was hesitant about being the only girl. What’s more, men and women do not play together in Saudi Arabia. Female sports are a fairly new phenomena there, and are never played in the presence of males. I was relieved and humbled to learn that the guys on that team not only welcomed my presence, they encouraged it, setting up goals for me, being painfully patient with my fumbles, and coaching me gently. The lesson learned was a valuable one, and the experience was more than just about sports or a game, it became a cultural interaction, as soccer so often does.
The culture of youth in Alex is soccer. More than that, it’s a way of life. It’s an escape from the day-to-day stresses of living in poverty, from drugs, from crime, and for a select few, it can mean an “escape” from the township or even the country its self. Youth play all day everyday in Alex. In the street, in parking lots, on a dirt or grass pitch. There are sanctioned and unofficial teams. There is a male and female league. The guys there play in a style called “unofficial”, and the cramped quarters and at times uneven or rocky terrain forces one to focus on ball control; dribbling, short passes, defense, quick footwork. Things that suburban players playing on a grass-pitch know less of.
Several Alex youth have gone on to play semi-professionally or professionally for the South African national team [this is a big deal. Think of a youth in the poorest community in the U.S. going on to play in the NFL or NBA. In South Africa, the jump is even larger]. In fact, one national player in the documentary goes back to Alex from time to time, “which he probably shouldn’t do,” explains his coach, simply to challenge himself and stay on form because the guys who play there are that good. Can you imagine a pro basketball player going back to the Bronx to shoot some hoops simply to challenge himself by the guys playing there?
The documentary was excellent. It was unpolished, dark at times, a bit raw; just like Alex. I spent the day in Alex a couple years ago so it was neat to see the township represented as a whole. By telling the story of youth playing in Alex as well as former professionals, the director did a great job of showing what soccer means not only to Alex, but to South Africa as a country, and even to the world. He reminds us how monumental it was for an African nation to host the 2010 World Cup (which took place during filming), especially a country like South Africa, which continues to emerge from it’s socially and politically tumultuous past as a symbol of hope and leadership for the continent. If you’re interested in seeing the movie, check out the website for the film, find the film on iTunes, or catch it on ESPN Classic.
Nancy from “Soccer City.” Photo by Pete Muller, courtesy soccer-city.tv. Click photo for original source.