Drive around Khayelitsha, one of South Africa’s biggest and fastest-growing townships, and football is impossible to ignore. There are hundreds of teams, thousands of players and five dedicated local football associations.
Makeshift goal frames stand amid the rolling debris-filled fields, with pitches of various shapes and sizes squeezed among the streets and settlements.
As the school buses and work taxis return for the evening, countless players can be seen shuffling towards their matches and training sessions as the sun goes down.
Football is thriving but, despite the foundation of a Fifa Football for Hope Centre during the 2010 World Cup, and initiatives from local top-flight team Cape Town City FC, there is still a big gap between Khayelitsha and the rest of the football world.
This is the kind of area – a mixture of formal and informal homes in a makeshift city of concrete and corrugated metal, sprawling across ‘the flats’ on Cape Town’s outskirts – that was supposed to benefit from having football’s showpiece event on its doorstep.
‘Legacy’ is a popular buzzword in major tournament bids, but for the millions of people who live here, football remains an escape but not a route to a career.
‘Scouts don’t come here often – it’s perceived as too dangerous’
Notorious for gang violence and its criminal subculture, Khayelitsha is in the top 10 areas for crime in the whole of South Africa, with nearly 3,500 contact crimes (192 of them murder) reported in the township during 2018.
With both education and employment opportunities limited for young people growing up there, a lot of importance is placed upon football to help keep them on track.
“Football does wonders in our community to help keep the boys in school and off the streets,” said Dumisani Madondile, 42, a long-term Khayelitsha resident.
“But there are still lots of barriers for them in life, let alone in football, particularly as potential aspiring players.
“Scouts don’t come to townships very often – it’s perceived as too dangerous. They will go to the academies in the affluent areas instead. There is very little pathway for these kids, in reality.
“There have been plenty of boys with the potential and the talent. But there’s definitely more ‘what could have been’ stories than successful ones.
“The lasting impact of the World Cup? We don’t see a legacy. It’s not there.”
‘Odds are stacked against these boys’
Situated between the Cape’s famous wine districts and upmarket seaside towns, the surroundings of the Khayelitsha township are not what you might expect.
Created as a “black neighbourhood” in the 1980s, at a time when the country was still heavily segregated under apartheid, it has grown rapidly as a home for migrant worker communities from across the country and continent.
Although Khayelitsha (translated from Xhosa as “our new home”) is a thriving and diverse community with plenty to offer, it is never far from the headlines. The township’s reputation for gang violence and criminal activity is well documented, both locally and in the world media.
As such, living in Khayelitsha comes with its own set of challenges, particularly for the younger generation.
The under-20s represent nearly 50% of the township’s population, and have to contend with overfilled classrooms, pressures at home, and a challenging community environment.
“A lot of the problems stem from the young boys and bad influences,” Madondile explained. “Lots of them turn to smoking, drinking and drugs, leading them into lives of crime and difficulty.
“Their parents will likely be away for 12 hours a day, travelling to the wealthy areas for work, and often these kids don’t get any kind of encouragement or attention, which they badly need to keep them on the right track.
“With the odds stacked against some of these boys, we need to make sure they can succeed not only in football, but in life.”
‘Why can’t we make the football pitch their church?’
Madondile has lived through these same challenges, arriving himself as a teenager in the 1980s in search of work and a better life.
“I used to live, breathe, eat and drink football,” he said. “I would use it as a way to avoid the distractions and bad influences that we were all led by.
“We never had footballs, but I would run around the streets kicking crumpled cans, or collecting plastic bags to roll up and use instead.
“It was bricks for goalposts usually, old overturned school desks if we were lucky.”
Aware of the huge passion for the game around him, but frustrated by the lack of coaching, equipment or opportunities, Madondile decided to do something about it.
“I took a ball to the field one day and started juggling it,” he explained, pointing out the rocky terrain where he first began his sessions.
“All of a sudden I was sitting there surrounded by 15 boys, all calling me ‘coach’ already.
“Before I knew it, they’d brought friends, and I had nearly 50 on my hands with only one football. Within a week it was over 100.”
This has evolved into the Royal Priesthood Academy, the club that has allowed Madondile to have a real impact on the next generation.
Fifteen years after his first informal session, it has three junior and two senior teams, spanning all age groups and working with boys from across different regions in Khayelitsha.
“The pitch was where they wanted to be,” he said. “I didn’t have to force them, or worry about them turning up.
“Football has a religious quality all over the world. People worship teams and players, and congregate in large numbers over a shared passion – it’s very similar when you think about it.
“When I saw how keen they were to be on the field, I thought to myself, ‘why can’t we make the football pitch their church?'”
The academy’s sessions all feature links between football skills and life lessons, using Bible stories and traditional songs alongside the tactical drills, to help the boys both on and off the field.
“I always hoped the project would create leaders, and a legacy,” Madondile said. “To see these boys become men thanks to football makes it all worthwhile.
“We’re not coaching football, we’re coaching life.”
‘Blatter’s money didn’t reach as far as it could have done’
The ‘DIY’ football set-up found in Khayelitsha is not uncommon around South Africa.
Despite football having an estimated 10 times as many fans as rugby here, and arguably the best professional league in Africa (their domestic Premier Soccer League), there are still big challenges at the most basic stages of the grassroots game.
To start addressing these issues, Fifa, through its partnership with Grassroot Soccer, set up 20 centres around the country during 2010, using the language and draw of football to raise awareness of wider issues, including sexual health and community values in young people.
“The Football for Hope Centre in Khayelitsha played a huge role in the transformation of a very dangerous space into a safer ground for that community,” said a Fifa spokesperson.
“As with all 20 centres throughout Africa, it includes a building for community activities focusing on education and public health, as well as a small-size artificial football pitch.
“Financial support continues to this day via the Fifa Foundation community programme as well as the 2010 Legacy Trust. The Legacy Trust was funded by Fifa to support the development of football in South Africa as well as for social development through football in communities like Khayelitsha and at other Football for Hope Centres across the continent.”
But despite the efforts of Fifa and Grassroot Soccer, the scale of the communities in need across South Africa means there are always likely to be worthy causes that miss out on such support.
“With only a handful of balls between four teams, there’s a lot of running for the boys sometimes!” said Madondile.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm around the 2010 World Cup for sure. [Then-Fifa president] Sepp Blatter left big money, but we don’t know where it’s gone.
“There are projects here and there, and lots of talk, but it never quite reached as far as it could have done.
“In future, I would like to see people working together more, and sharing fairer opportunity. But for now, whatever is happening at that level, we just focus on what we can achieve here every day.”