News: For the Love of Soccer and a Lasting Sisterhood

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About 1:45 p.m. Sunday afternoon, a caravan of luxury cars and sport utility vehicles roared into the park where hundreds of supporters had been waiting. President Jacob Zuma had arrived. The president was in this town, about 260 miles northeast of Johannesburg, to commemorate the life of Peter Mokaba, an antiapartheid activist.

Five days before the start of the World Cup, the stars of the celebration were a soccer team — a group of 35 women ages 49 to 84. After the speeches and ceremonies, the team, Vakhegula Vakhegula (Grannies Grannies), would play an exhibition game.

Beka Ntsanwisi founded Vakhegula Vakhegula five years ago as a way of providing inspiration for older women. The team usually plays its league games on Saturdays, but this was a special day with the president coming. And Ntsanwisi wanted to have a word with the president.

From the team’s meager beginning, Vakhegula Vakhegula have become well known in the region, and news of the team has spread to the United States. The team received an invitation to compete in the Veterans Cup, a tournament for teams with players 30 or older, next month in Lancaster, Mass.

But the Grannies need additional money to take the trip. Ntsanwisi said she wanted to ask the president to support the fund-raising effort to send Vakhegula Vakhegula to the United States.

“Because the president is coming, we just want to go straight to him and cry before him that ‘Hey, here we are, we need money. We voted for you and now we need your support because we are representing South Africa,’ ” she said.

Zuma apparently left without seeing Vakhegula Vakhegula earn an 8-0 victory over a newcomer to the grannies’ game, the Waterfall Grannie Soccer team.

The grandmothers will not be mistaken for a national team; they play at a deliberate but purposeful pace and with plenty of passion. They play on a modest park field, a world away from the new stadium, named after Mokaba, in nearby Polokwane, which is hosting four first-round World Cup games.

Ntsanwisi’s decision to found the team came out of her own sense of personal challenge.

In 2003, she learned she had colon cancer; by 2005, she was using a wheelchair. In the process of her treatment, Ntsanwisi visited a number of public hospitals and was disturbed by the level of treatment of elderly patients, especially women. Many were despondent or confused. She thought that regular exercise would be beneficial. That exercise evolved into soccer.

When they were girls, playing sports was not a realistic option.

“In my generation, it was not like it is today,” Ntsanwisi said. “When you played soccer, you were a little bit afraid. Our culture was like that. Our culture would tell you that a woman has to be home cooking for the husband or cooking for the family.”

The team’s leading scorer is Beatrice Tshabala, a relative baby at 49. Her nickname on the team is Lionel Messi, after the Argentine star.

She recalled how she saw the team practicing on her way home from work. She stopped the car and went to talk to the players. She asked what they were doing and if she could join.

When Tshabala’s husband died in 2005, the Grannies became her extended family to share the grief and sorrow.

“Even if we’re not playing, I go to their house, we talk and pray and whatever,” Tshabala said. “So at church I’m busy, at work and then with the grannies, I don’t have time to sit down and mourn every day.”

For Onica Ndzhovela, the Grannies helped her spirit from being broken. She had 12 children; 8 of them died.

“People were saying I was mad,” Ndzhovela said. “I was not mad; I had a lot of stress. It’s not easy to lose eight.”

The Grannies became her family; the soccer competition became an emotional outlet.

Ntsanwisi wants to spread the word of eternal sisterhood that ages but never dies. With the World Cup in South Africa, the timing for spreading the word could not be better.

Her cancer is in remission, but she stays focused on her legacy.

“I’m hoping for the best, but even if I die, I just want to leave a legacy, something that people will remember me by,” she said. “Even if I’m not here, somebody will say, ‘Beka started this.’ ”

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