A recent soccer clinic in Soweto had former Liverpool F.C. player John Barnes coaching young girls to become the future stars of Africa.
It’s high noon but the skies are overcast in Soweto on this Wednesday afternoon in October. It is business as usual in this urban Johannesburg township but as we approach Meadowlands, it starts to drizzle.
But rain or shine, at the Fiat Sports Centre here, a group of over 40 girls aged between 12 and 14 are oblivious to everything around them. Their eyes are trained on the ball as they make the most of the day out on the field with visiting retired Jamaican-born professional footballer John Barnes.
It’s a soccer coaching clinic with the star and the girls are wearing big smiles and bright red outfits.
The well-maintained field is separated into rectangles so the groups are smaller and easier to manage. Each section has a coach, balls and marking cones for the different skill-building tasks planned for the day.
Barnes pays close attention to the teams, occasionally offering advice to both the coaches and players.
“It is about empowering young girls and making them feel confident about expressing themselves. It is about making them feel confident that there are no barriers that stop them from achieving their goals,” he says.
The former Liverpool Football Club player and English Football Hall of Fame inductee has been playing football for as long as he can remember., so he only knows too well the preoccupations of these young minds.
He moved to England at the age of 12, and joined the professional ranks at 17 when he signed for Watford in 1981. Barnes later moved to Liverpool F.C. in his early 20s where he played for a decade.
Today, in Soweto, he motivates the girls on the field, goading them on to perform better than boys.
“You have to separate football when you talk about it in South Africa, into men’s football and women’s football. Men’s football is really well-advanced, they have huge support, lots of money, great players, but women’s football is just starting out. It is pleasing to see that young girls are now given an opportunity because young girls in Africa are told that they do not play football but they actually do,” says Barnes.
The girls receive coaching as part of the Goal global community initiative by Standard Chartered Bank. In South Africa, the program was launched in Tshwane in April 2015 and has since reached over 6,000 girls. The target for 2018 is just over 3,000 girls between Tshwane and Soweto.
In partnership with Altus Sport, an NGO developing youth and sport, the 2018 Soweto program includes this special interaction with Barnes.
Former Banyana Banyana player, Thando Dlamini, started coaching at the clinic this year. She says some of the girls lack discipline, and stresses how support from family members and the community can go a long way to help.
“You hardly see any of the parents coming to support the girls. I think if they came to the games and watch the girls, they will realize it is not about the misconceptions. The behavior has changed in some of the girls I worked with. Soccer teaches you discipline,” says Dlamini.
The star of the day at the soccer clinic, Mosima Magome, a Grade 8 student, agrees. She says she has been feeling more confident since starting soccer.
“People would always tease me because I am the shortest in class,” she says. The teenager looks up to global icon, Lionel Messi, because “he never quits, even when he misses a goal”.
Commenting on the general lack of interest in skills-building programs, Altus Sport’s Operations Manager Samantha Pennells says local professional sportsmen should give back to the community as well.
“You got a guy from Liverpool, like John Barnes. He is here in the community; it is not his community but he is here giving advice, giving tips. It was not just about sport, it was about life,” she says.
South African football veteran Steve Sekano, a guest at the soccer clinic, and Barnes share jokes on the sidelines.
The former Moroka Swallows Football Club midfielder runs a foundation within the community that aims to get the youth involved in sport. With hopes that sport will keep them out of trouble, Sekano advocates the need for more facilities in the area. He says that as a former professional, it is his duty to give back.
“People ask me why soccer is not the same as when you guys played. I say it is the same. But when you talk about soccer today, you talk about money. Because our players are earning a lot of money today. Those days, we were not earning a lot of money, we were committed. But our players need to up their game; our game must grow,” says Sekano.
For Geraldine Matchaba, Head of Corporate Affairs, Brand & Marketing, South Africa and Southern Africa, at Standard Chartered Bank, the corporate world too has a responsibility to prioritize community-based issues. “Those are people who are your future employees, they are your clients and they are future leaders. You have to play a role. It is what we are doing with the Goal program,” she says.
Thoko Phakati, Sports Field Manager, is in charge of operations at the Fiat Sports Centre. The space that used to be a dumping site is now accessible to the community free of charge.
“We believe they also deserve a chance, why is it that only places like the Wanderers Stadium are supposed to look beautiful? So we are doing as much as we can here to give kids a chance. We have people like Steve Sekano who grew up here and became successful but if he were to tell you his story, you will find that he also had challenges growing up,” she says.
Soweto truly is the home of South African football, and the young girls here prove they too can chase a ball for 90 minutes. There is a long conversation to be had about policies that prioritize men over women in sport, but in the meantime, programs such as Goal and footballers like Barnes continue to make sure that new stars are born on the muddy fields of Soweto.