Monday, 29 August 2011

“Diski Yase Kasi”

A pitch of red earth, pebble and stone, its face pockmarked by the studs of a thousand boots, walked flat by thousands more. There is more green glass than green grass, with only a few tufts clinging stubbornly to life. The perimeter is fenced but this space is not closed.

The field is as much a sports ground as thoroughfare, meeting place, entertainment venue. Its identity is as diverse as the people who use it, changing from moment to moment.

Township life, the spaces in which it is lived, has few boundaries or compartments. All things mix to create a fusion of diversity, things which in other places would be kept separate play out shoulder to shoulder, stand together as twins; young and old together, languages and cultures, statuses in life.

This is a rainbow poured into a single pot with the beautiful game weaved into the different fabrics of social life. On this field a different kind of soccer is played.

These are the Rotary Grounds of Alexandra, bordered on two sides by the busy Roosevelt Street and an old sleeping relic, the Madala Hostel. It is a soccer ground, a grand tournament venue, host to the Maimane Alfred Phiri (MAP) Games “Diski Yase Kasi”, one South Africa’s biggest amateur soccer competition.

Maimane Phiri. Pic by Gaspard Moreau
In its ninth year it is the brainchild of Alexandra local and former Bafana Bafana player, Maimane Phiri, who started the tournament with only four teams while he was still based in Turkey. The idea, to put something back into the community and game that gave him so much.

The tournament consists of four divisions: U/12s and U/17s, Ladies, Masters (over 35s), Senior men’s which was the biggest with 32 teams. With 96 sides in total it is three times that of the World Cup with teams travelling from as far as Limpopo and Mpumalanga. Most of the matches were played on the Rotary Grounds with finals being held in the Alexandra Stadium.

And with a prize money pool of R115 000, possible with the help of sponsors Metrorail, Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, and Boston City Campus, it is not only biggest amateur tournament but one of the richest. Winners in the senior’s division collected R50 000 with runners up pocketing R30 000, fortunes for amateur teams.

Run over the last five weeks the tournament finished this weekend with the Masters and seniors finals, the youth games having been played on 16 June with the women’s being put on hold of clashes with the Sasol Soccer League. Their tournament will be played in August with the final scheduled for Women’s Day.

The organisers put attendance figures for the tournament at around 55 000, while this last weekend saw close to 14 000 people going through the gates at Alexandra Stadium. This was significant considering the final was played at the same time as Bafana’s match against Spain after an unintended clash of timetables.

The senior men’s final was the highlight of the day, a tense match between a home team, Joe’s 11, and the Dream Team from Mamelodi. Patrick Phungwayo, who plays for Bidvest Wits, opened the scoring for Joe’s early in the game with the match being decided on penalties.

Thulani Mcwango, captain of Joe’s 11, speaking over a stadium of sounding vuvuzelas, said he was overwhelmed by the support. “This is one of the greatest moments in my life, to have my family, my friends, my whole community to come out and support me and my team. And they are doing this even though Bafana was playing at the same time as us. Its great!”

The tournament is more than just soccer. The field is more than just a pitch. It is a place of congregation, a place of people together. Soccer in this community has a special meaning and history in that it has curbed hatred and hostility, halted violence, healed burning divisions, and been a catalyst for unity.

The imposing Madala Hostel. Pic by Bram Lammers
“You know,” says Phiri, “before there was a war between the hostel guys and the community, Inkatha (Freedom Party) versus ANC. This whole area was a no go area, it was very closed and difficult and dangerous to pass through here. I can say soccer has meant peace. I came with soccer and it brought people together, they played together, they started talking and now those problems belong to the past.”

The area in the early 1990s was the site of hostility with violence in 1992 claiming 60 lives, injuring close to 600 and displacing around 10 000 people. It was a “no-go” zone, given the nickname Beirut.

Last year, around the time of the xenophobic attacks that swept through South Africa after having started in Alexandra, Phiri, already aware of the power of soccer, decided to use the tournament as a force to tame the hostilities. He invited a team of foreign African nationals to play in the tournament:

“I said to them don’t worry, come and play, I will guarantee your safety. They were very scared to come but they did. They played very well and even made the semi-finals. By that time they had a lot of supporters in the crowd. I wanted to show the other guys that this thing we were doing was wrong and that football can unite people. It did.”

Not only is soccer a saving grace in the broader sense but it is also a constructive force at the individual level with most players saying that soccer keeps them occupied, off the streets, and away from crime.

“This tournament is good for the township. Many of our professional players today started here,” says Alexandra local “Shakes” Kungwane. “We South Africans love soccer and this kind of tournament keeps people busy, out of mischief, and gives them something positive to focus on. The hopes and dreams of young people are represented in this tournament, some will make a future in soccer here.”

The ex-Kaiser Chiefs and Bafana player, another local hero, spent the weekend in the stands and was full of praise for Phiri saying that it was unusual to find a retired player putting so much back into both his community and soccer. Kungwane is a regular at the tournament and fields teams from his own Shakes Academy.

Every year Phiri invites coaches and selectors to attend the games and each year the grand prize for lucky players is being picked up by Premier Soccer League teams. Names such Papi Mngomezulu, Patrick Phungwayo, Mpho “Bibo” Makola, Tsietsi Mahoa, and Sibusiso Zwane were first shouted by fans at this tournament.

Tense moments before a penalty. Pic by Bram Lammers
Thabo Kutumela of the Dream Team, who won Player of the Tournament, said he was surprised at the award and felt that the tournament would open the doors for a career in soccer. “One guy took my number so who knows, God is great, I keep on praying and I hope that I can get something out of this…I love soccer so much, it is my inspiration. I love it! It is like an older brother to me because I grew up with it.”

“I come here every year to watch soccer and I’m also a winner,” said Gabriel Mabaso, “because I go home with something in my pocket for my family.” The tournament is good business for locals as money changes hands for cigarettes, fruits, nuts, boiled eggs, beer, cool drinks, and cooked food among other things.

Phiri is also a realist, saying that many youngsters pin their hopes on soccer alone and never make it. With this in mind the youth division was also a platform to further the cause of education. Together with his sponsor, Boston City Campus, he gave away two bursaries worth R10 000 to U/17 players towards future study.

The games will be held in May next year, its tenth anniversary, as a curtain raiser to the World Cup, and the organisers hope it will attract both locals and foreigners who can experience soccer “kasi style”.

With a deep love for soccer the driving force behind the tournament Phiri says his greatest difficulty is securing sponsorship and the biggest obstacle to its future. “I really just wish someone could sign a deal to sponsor us for five years because at the end of this year I don’t know if my same sponsors will come back. If I could have this then I know the tournament is secure.”
A team takes a minute to say a prayer before the kick off of their second round game. Pic by Bram Lammers
So, what does soccer mean to Phiri?

“It means everything to me, I would not be who I am today without it!”

The beautiful game has given a life to Maimane Phiri, just as the township of Alexandra helped shape him. Both of these parallel influences have not only enriched his life but, because of them, his community and the many teams who travel from far and wide are benefiting as well.

Bram Lammers Photography

Also published on the Tour Du Monde en Solidaire website of the Olympique Lyonnais Foundation:

No comments: