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Soccer Dreams

Nanama Keita / Twenty Ten

Location: Orange Farm, South Africa

A township football academy.

Associated Features: The Red Stars(Photo Feature) Football college, Nigeria (Photo feature), Ghana's future stars (Photo feature), A Dreaming Drogba, Liberia (Photo feature), Surviving Dreams, Nigeria (Photo feature), Hogsback Lion Cubs (Photo feature), Ghana Legend (Multimedia feature), A coach with vision, Zambia (Multimedia feature)

Many parents in Orange Farm, an improvised township 70km south of Johannesburg, enlist their sons in a local informal football academy, in the hope that they will go on to be soccer stars.

"He loves football, and I think he has great potential for it," says Amah Radeba, the mother of a 15-year-old who trains every day with his local coach on the outskirts of the settlement.

At the grassless and rocky training field, over 25 boys train every afternoon under the tutelage of their coach, Commodore Mavumengwana. Technical demands and formal skills take over from simply having fun.

From the stands, the severe coach is constantly giving his young charges instructions: "Oh, no, you lost it again! Cover up! Open up spaces!"

This is the township’s main training centre for boys between the ages of 11 and 17. Older boys, who have what it takes, may go on to play professionally and achieve their goal of playing in South Africa’s Premier League.

"We promote football as a sport, from the perspective that it is healthy fun," says Commodore, the owner of the academy.

The former league player says that Orange Farm, like many other deprived townships in South Africa, is a jungle, where survival of the fittest is the order of the day.

“There are a lot of hoodlums and boys who cause trouble. It is only through sport that we can help to bring them to the good life. And the only way we can get them away from crime, is to get them to play football,” he says.

The 39-year-old is well aware of the great expectations of the parents, and warns that it takes time and patience for one to make a breakthrough in football.

"Having a son play professionally is every parent's dream in the township, but here in this academy I keep my feet on the ground. My role is to teach the boys and train them," he says.

In his view, some parents have their eye on becoming millionaires through their children's success in football. The idea of football as a means to fame and fortune caught on rapidly in a community where three-quarter of the population live in poverty.

However, apart from professional clubs in the cities, most football academies in the townships are set up by parents' groups. The Red Stars are an exception, as it belongs to Commodore, who wants to use his experience and skills to provide a source of hope for the younger generation.

Commodore is full of energy, and looks younger than his years. His career was halted by two horrific on-field incidents in which his left leg was broken twice while playing for Boksburg Guild FC in Reiger Park, a coloured township east of Johannesburg.

The career-ending injury left him with a permanent limp, but that unfortunate setback does little to hamper his passion and interest in the game.

“I dream and sleep football everyday and it’s the only sport I want to be involved in,” he says. “And now that I have hung up my boots, I want to use my experience to guide these passionate and ambitious youngsters.”

Commodore trains the youngsters with the hope of getting them to bigger clubs in the city. For a coach who lives in a shack with his family, one wonders how he manages to get things going with little or no financial support from the parents.

“My primary objective is to get these boys to the professional clubs in the city. I recently succeeded in taking two players to a second tier club [United FC] for trials, and on both occasions, I have to sell my computers to foot the bills,” says the desperate coach, who makes a living from a computer repair business that he runs from his two-roomed corrugated iron shack.

“The only backing I get from the parents is moral support and nothing else,” he adds.

Soccer legend, Jefferey Sebego, who is the current secretary general of the community’s football legend body, says it is unprecedented for an incident involving an ex-soccer star to have such a wide and deep impact throughout Orange Farm settlement. "Never before has such a mass interest in football been so clearly demonstrated by our youngsters," he adds.

Sebego, however, rues the improvised pitch used by the local youngsters, saying it’s one of the major challenge facing their development.

Mazwai Chris Hlathi, a 16-year-old player, is one of the most outstanding in a group of promising youngsters at the Red Stars camp.

"When people walk past us, they look down on us like we are not even people, just because we are poor," he says, his eyes burning with anger. "They will see that we can be something tomorrow."

More than anything else, Hlathi wants to make his grandmother, who raised him after his parents separated, proud by achieving his dream of playing professionally. For the shy-looking but ambitious youngster, playing football offers him and his other team-mates an escape from their lives of constant hunger and envy.

Mojalefa Radeba clings to the slim hope that someday he will be a professional footballer in a country known more for its crime than football.

Without pretension, the 14-year-old who dropped out of school to play soccer, calls the game his career, and says the informal academy, which lacks the basic soccer accessories, is his first step on that path.

“To some it may look a far-fetched dream, but I always believe that with determination and commitment, the dream is achievable,” he declares with confidence. “Drogba is my football idol and each time I watch him play, I get this burning desire to be just like him one day.”

Youngsters like Mojalefa and Hlathi see football as their path out of the ghetto. It is dreams like these that coach Commodore carries on his shoulders as he paces the edge of that rocky pitch day after day.

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