Jo's Girl
Jo's Girl

A tribute to the Mkhonto Eleven stars

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You couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day. We drove into Alex and met up with the Mkhonto Eleven under-15 soccer team. Kitted out in black and white and their new boots (sponsored by Friends of Alex), they were happy, excited, and chirpy … yet disciplined, on time and grateful for the taxi that had been hired to take them to their big game. Somewhere in City Deep we arrived at a field that was humble by nature, but ambitious in its name “Southampton Football Club”. And yet, it is entirely appropriate. For who knows the ambitions of the kids running around here … to follow in the footsteps of the stars they see on a neighbour’s TV, maybe even those from equally humble backgrounds who now find themselves playing in the Confederations Cup.

But despite their excitement, they came out the taxi and went straight into one of the most disciplined warm-up sessions I’ve ever seen. Hardly anything had to be said. No unruly boys being shouted at to get in line or stop playing around. These guys were into their drill and we stood fascinated. Most enthralling of all was the part-soccer part-dance move sequence of footwork that was carried out with near-perfect synchronisation as they moved in a very precise line making rhythmical noses by slapping their boots. Wow! The show was worth it before it had even begun. And then the manager from the other team came over … “thank you for coming, you are so welcome”. It’s the kind of manners I never experienced in my years of tagging behind a rugby club in the UK as part of their management team.

But not to be outdone, a small boy of about three or four had tagged along. Perhaps the other boys had seen him as a kind of mascot, but he took himself seriously as he got out the taxi carrying a big bag and the water bottles. He was no free-rider. Never mind that he was only just big enough to carry them, he was so determined to get them to the side of the field that he ignored us completely until his job was done. And then he was open for business: flick-flacks, forward rolls, and funny faces … I got them all on camera to his absolute delight. I don’t think he ever watched much of the game … he just seemed happy to be there and be included in the crowd.

It was a great game to watch … when two sides come together so determined to win, and pushing themselves so hard, you can’t help but get caught up in it all. We scored. They scored. And as happens, in the dying minutes, we scored again causing so much excitement that the team ran after the goal-scorer (who started running away) and cornered him somewhere well past the clubhouse for a group “hug”. We were equally enthralled. The opposition supporters didn’t take it so well, some rude remarks were made to our players, which didn’t go down well, but it calmed down quickly enough … and most amazingly of all … their manager came over to us to apologise in the most gracious way!

So the game ended in victory and the boys looked happy. But they took it all in their stride. They filed back in the taxi with their mascot running ahead of them with the team bag and water bottles again. We tried to call him back to give him a sweet, but he wasn’t interested, he had a job to do again. Before we all parted (them back to Alex, and us back into Sandton), the coach and his assistants thanked us for coming, reminding us how much support for the boys meant.

And they’ll go home wishing they could be stars one day. Maybe they’ll find a place to crowd round a TV and watch SA play Brazil in the semi-finals of the Confed Cup. And statistics say that it is not impossible that someday one of these boys might make it into the big leagues, maybe locally or even further beyond. But if they do let’s hope one thing, that when they mix with the brilliance and egos of players from all over the world they don’t forget one thing: the strength of character that was the trademark of the boys of Alex who played on a small field in SA.

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