‘We want to play soccer, Coach!’

2013-05-12 14:00

Sis-Thembi said it was stray balls flying over the wall into Ma Johnson’s yard that got us evicted from the soccer field at Nkanyezi Stimulation Centre. Now we’re battling to get our pitch back. Mosa Damane tells how bureaucracy, self-interest and plain laziness threatens his talent-producing soccer club.

Shaking the dust in Soweto.

Making do with the girls’ netball court in Orlando West’s unpleasant Mzimhlophe City Park, our coach Neo Kgoadi is training the Under-11s and Under-13s as usual in preparation for the weekend’s games.

Twenty-three excited athletes are enjoying their two-touch on the court’s unsuitably hard surface when a 4x4 roars up, screeching to a halt in the centre of play.

It’s the City of Johannesburg parks department. One of the rangers orders Kgoadi to take the boys somewhere else. The netball court, he decrees, is no place for soccer training.

Neo tells the boys to jog around the park, but the momentum of training has been disturbed. The 10-year-olds grumble as they jog. “We want to playsoccer, coach!” Then the rangers scream out again: “No jogging in Mzimhlophe City Park!”

Our club is Syd, short for Siyanqoba Youth Development Club.

It has 70 members and four teams: Under-11, Under-13, Under-17 and seniors. It was started by three of us: Zakhele Dhlamini, Son Malvern and myself in 2006.

All football crazy, but not fortunate enough to play professional football – age being no longer on our side (I was already 23, recovering from a misspent youth).

Our Under-17s and seniors play in the Safa Soweto league, winning twice so far this season.

The Under-13s, trained by Kgoadi, the best coach ever, win consecutive games in the Mayfair Greater League and came second to Orlando Pirates Development in 2010/11.

We have no sponsor.

No one is paid and our yearly budget is approximately R13 610.

Most of this comes from our co-founder, Dhlamini, once an ace junior goalkeeper in Neil Tovey’s soccer clinic and who now lives in North America.

A soccer club must have somewhere to train.

The custodian of open spaces is City Parks and in 2009 the city council’s representative for ward 39 (Orlando West), Gladys Fihla, gave Syd a letter of permission to train on the soccer pitch that lies within the grounds of the Nkanyezi Stimulation Centre, a former primary school in Armitage Street almost next door to the famous Orlando Stadium.

We shared the pitch with two other clubs: Shomang Primary School and Orlando West United.

Training started at 4pm, after the centre’s children had gone home, and Sis-Thembi entrusted us with putting the padlock on the gate when we left.

Sis-Thembi? That’s Thembekile Tshabalala, the founder and boss of Nkanyezi Stimulation Centre, a day centre for disabled children.

It’s named in memory of her youngest child, Nkanyezi, who had cerebral palsy and died at the age of 11.

At our Nkanyezi training pitch, we had our triumphs. One of our best players, 12-year-old Sibusiso Ngwenya, was selected from 4?000 prospects to train at Sao Paulo Futebol Academy in Brazil. And our 14-year-old midfield maestro, TC Mfolo, was spotted and snapped up by SuperSport United. Mfolo is now with Mamelodi Sundowns Juniors.

Sis-Thembi made it clear she didn’t want us there, accusing us of trampling her flower beds, stealing stones from her garden and leaving the water tap running. But we didn’t.

Syd has tough rules of behaviour, with suspension for five games for bad attitude or laziness.

But on October 14 2011 when we arrived at Nkanyezi for training, the gate was locked.

We were temporarily allowed in again, but five weeks later, the gate clanged closed again for good.

“No more training on this pitch!” fumed one of Nkanayezi’s committee members at a meeting to discuss our eviction. “The committee has decided.”

Pressing for a reason, I was told a neighbour had complained that soccer balls landed in her yard and players climbed over to retrieve them without her permission.

“Siyanqoba (Syd) is not guilty,” admitted Sis-Thembi at the time, “but we have decided to ban all the three clubs from using the field.”

This week he said he would not comment, saying only: “I am not a one-man committee.”

So I set about trying to get it back, and shook the dust – shaya imoto kushunqe intuli, as we say in Soweto – to the door of Gladys Fihla. She was the city councillor of ward 39, Orlando West, who had authorised our entry to Nkanyezi back in 2009.

But she was no longer in office and her letter allowing us to use the pitch had been taken by Sis-Thembi – and we didn’t have a copy.

The new ward councillor, Praise-God Themba Msibi, listened to the story and promised to arrange a meeting with Sis-Thembi.

Enlisting support, I rushed to Orlando Police Station. Surely the cops would appreciate Syd’s work since 2006, whisking hundreds of young Sowetan boys off the streets before they could be lured into drugs and crime?

But there I’m brusquely referred back to the ward councillor.

We have the Greater Orlando Community Policing Forum. Its chairperson, Sechaba Khumalo, declines to get involved, saying he’d refer the matter to the city council’s deputy chief whip, councillor Justice Ngalonkulu.

Three months later and Ngalonkulu has roused our slumbering councillor Msibi, who announces that he has set up a meeting with Sis-Thembi at Uncle Tom’s hall. Msibi and I turn up. Sis-Thembi doesn’t.

More dust-shaking. This time to the SA Football Association, where I meet its Soweto general secretary, Peter Thuntsane.

“Eish man! Ja! The field issue is a big problem in the league,” he said. “But we need to follow proper procedures.

All soccer grounds are owned by the city council and the person to co-engage in this matter is the councillor of your ward.”

Proper procedures, he said, would entail a letter from councillor Praise-God Themba Msibi to Nkanyezi Stimulation Centre.

He would write one too.

“With these letters of appeal, the committee will sympathise with you,” he said.

Back to Msibi then and the back-yard room where he lives. It’s 8.48am.

The sun is already hot and the honourable councillor is in bed, keeping warm under two thick Aranda blankets.

“I’ll speak to someone responsible for sport and that person will take these letters to City Parks. I will call a meeting after,” he said, adding: “The field belongs to City Parks. There’s nothing else I can do ... Wena (you), just wait for the meeting.”

He then pulls a blanket over his head and goes back to sleep.

A disappointing finish too from Safa’s Thuntsane. No impassioned appeal, just a note addressed “To Whom it may Concern” reading: “We are requesting your assistance by allowing Siyanqoba Youth Development Club to use your facility for training.”

So I head off to find out who the old lady was who complained about our balls in her yard. After considerable attempts, I track down Ma Johnson.

She says she saw a boy in her yard trying to retrieve a ball and when she shouted at “the rogue” not to climb over, he laughed.

This annoyed Ma Johnson.

“It has happened a lot of times,” she said.

“I want to have peace of mind and if it happens again I will lodge a complaint with the government and they must buy me a new house.”

All this plunged me into megadepression. So I take a walk to Nkungu Street and the home of our former 12-year-old star, Sibusiso Ngwenya, he who was selected to train in Brazil.

Sibusiso is now 16 and at Safa’s School of Excellence in Elandsfontein, where he is a weekly boarder in Grade 10 and playing for the Under-17s.

He is one of 114 boys at the school dressed head to toe by Puma.

That day, the young lordship is wearing Nike shorts and colour-blocking Puma sneakers.

He doesn’t bother with a vest or T-shirt, preferring to show off his mini guns that include a well-trimmed six-pack. Typical football player.

Sibusiso was nine when he played his debut game for Syd.

“I came in from the bench with 10 minutes to the final whistle. After the game, I was nicknamed Duku Duku, after (former Orlando Pirates and Bafana Bafana midfielder) Joseph ‘Duku Duku’ Makhanya.”

His former Syd team-mates are in the seniors now and Sibusiso watches most of their games when he is home.

He misses playing with them and knows all about our eviction from Nkanyezi.

“It hurts so bad,” he says. “I am where I am because of Syd, the development. Now my friends are affected. They can no longer train regularly like we used to before. This is not fair. They are going to miss out on many things. They must stay strong and passionate.”

Well, the Under-11s and Under-13s are staying strong and passionate as they arrive for coach Kgoadi’s regular work-out at the Mzimhlophe netball court.

Ban or no ban, they still manage to train there Tuesday to Thursday.

Among them is 10-year-old Andile Simelani, who’s been with Syd since he was seven and has scored 10 goals already this season for the Under-13s in his number 10 jersey.

Mark the name. Andile’s a star in the making, a marvel to watch.

The Grade 4 pupil at Molemo Primary School frets for Syd’s old pitch at Nkanyezi. “Bekumnandi kakhulu, it was too much fun,” he says. “I enjoyed every session and we had enough space there.

After the eviction, I was hurt and thought the team would disappear.”

His friends agree. “I feel bad,” says Matume “Keita” Mokgalabane (11). “Kubuhlungo ngoba asicavi sitshuneni, it’s painful because we do not know what we did.”

Thabiso “Thuso Phala” Ledwaba (9) says: “It’s not right. The field belongs to us.

Ja! Iground lethu vele, yes, it’s our field indeed! I cannot use my football boots on the netball court and my magrizini (grandmother) doesn’t allow me to use my takkies for training.”


» While the pitch at Nkanyezi Stimulation Centre stands in manicured emptiness, a messenger arrives at the netball court with news from Lunga Ncapai, acting senior manager, Region D, Johannesburg City Parks, Recreation & Fitness. Syd may, after all, train in Mzimhlophe Park – not only on the netball court but on its soccer pitch as well – from Mondays to Fridays and play games there at weekends. Ncapai’s bad news is that the whole park will be closed in June for maintenance. Indefinitely.

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