In a pink Adidas jacket with her blonde hair tied up neatly, Tracy-Lee Pepper is a rare sight in the heat of a township football battle. A crowd of 40 roar like 400. The small but bustling Balfour Park in Johannesburg, which looks like a school football field, is a pin in the world football tapestry. It’s a keen encounter between promotion hopefuls, Alexandra United FC and Munsieville Stars. Vuvuzelas wail, fans bang on the stands and dance for joy; one fan in his forties hurls himself into somersaults alongside the stands. It’s a tense game, Alex United are down 2-0 deep into the second half and running out of hope.
Pepper has an unnerving calm as the match unfolds, barely flinching as the crowd grows anxious. In an attempt to turn the game around, Pepper brings on the imposing figures of Mfanafuthi Mboma, who seems a bit timid off the pitch but deadly on it, and the energetic Pedro Marques who masterfully weaves around his opponents. With 15 minutes left, Alex United stage a remarkable comeback. The small and stealthy Collins Zimba rattles one in from five yards. In a matter of minutes, Zimba scores again with the cavalier cheek of a back-heel. The crowd watches with bated breath. With two minutes left, Mboma has the final say as he smacks in the winner. The lethal combination of Zimba and Mboma secures Alex United’s win and as the whistle blows, the fans run in a celebration.
There are no agents, no merchandise or sky-rocketing salaries. Balfour Park is a world away from the likes of Wayne Rooney and Old Trafford. It’s also all in a day’s work for a white female coach of an all-male football team from a predominantly black township on the fringes of the South African national league.
Pepper began playing football with her brothers who played for Hellenic FC in Cape Town. Women’s football was rare in Cape Town so Pepper played provincially in Johannesburg. Twenty years later, she’s one of the best female coaches in the country who is trying to break stereotypes and lead Alex United to promotion. She made football her business when her 11-year-old daughter wanted to play. Pepper started a company called Girl Sport to coach youngsters and founded the first girls’ school league in Johannesburg.
Pepper approached Alex United to do match analysis. When the coach fell sick, she was asked to take over the team and then offered a one season contract. Owner of the team Nicholas Nicolaou says he took a risk employing a female coach but it appears to be paying off.
“I think what a woman brings to the team that a man doesn’t is that motherly instinct so you have the compassion combined with the harshness of the football industry which is cruel and beautiful all at the same time. They are like extended children of mine,” says Pepper.
Pepper has introduced a brand new team and spent her time getting to know the character of her players. “It’s a great feeling. It’s my first experience of being coached by a woman and it’s been an amazing experience. I for one treat her like my mother,” says Kgomotso Koena, the captain of the team who plays center back.
She is a tough mother. The players go through an arduous three hours of rigorous training each day. The team is comprised of professionals who exude a passion for the game. Pepper has their respect. “The main thing is getting results. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, what race you are as long as you’re doing your job,” says Marques.
A township in the heart of Johannesburg, shadowing and contrasting the bustling wealthy suburb of Sandton, Alex is one of the poorest areas in Johannesburg amassed in compact shacks worn with the hardships of its residents. The Hope City Giants, as Alex United is known, carry just that. Alex United are part of the South African Football Association (SAFA) second division ABC Motsepe League. The teams hopes to win their league in May were dashed but the team is already geared for next year to enter the play-offs with the winners of each province.
Pepper crosses her fingers as she explains that winning the play-offs would take her team to the National First Division (NFD) and then one more jump to the Premier Soccer League (PSL). “That’s what I love about my job. You really get to know your players well. You just become a family,” says Pepper. Maybe this family can help make her the first female coach in the top flight soccer league.