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S Africa's football 'grannies' look to World Cup

A football match in Nkowankowa, Limpopo
Excitement is building in South Africa as the 2010 World Cup draws closer

By Pumza Fihlani
BBC News, Nkowankowa, Limpopo

Vakhegula Vakhegula in South Africa's Limpopo Province is not your average soccer team - with the oldest member of the team aged 83, this team of grannies says soccer has given them their lives back.

The team, with close to 40 members, meets twice a week for an hour's practice. During this time, they are not just grandmothers with families to feed, but local football stars.

With the 2010 World Cup drawing closer, excitement about the event is building in South Africa. Many people hope to benefit from, or play some role in, the football spectacular.

The "grannies" are no exception. They had hoped to play a curtain-raiser during the competition, but the South African Football Association explained that only teams that had officially qualified were allowed to play.

Celebrations after a football game in Limpopo

This, however, has not dampened their spirits.

They say they are looking forward to learning a few tricks from the international players.

"We all can't wait for the World Cup. I pray every day that God will keep us. It will be a good time for us as soccer players and South Africans," says 68-year-old Mudjadji Makondo, one of the strikers.

Vakhegula Vakhegula means "grannies" in the local language Xitshonga.

These women may be old, but they play with the passion of youngsters.

One of the mid-fielders is nicknamed Maradona, after the international football star.

Her real name is Chrestina Machede.

She says her antics and passion on the field earned her the name.

"Soccer for me relieves stress. I suffer from hypertension but since I started playing soccer I have become healthier. I even sleep better at night," she says.

Sixty-one-year-old Ms Machabe has been playing soccer for the past two years, and she says she has no plans to stop any time soon.

They meet on a dusty field in Nkowankowa township, which is about 80km (50 miles) from Polokwane, where one of the 2010 World Cup matches will be played.

Each time I went to the clinic I saw large numbers of grannies with diseases such as hypertension, arthritis and diabetes. I knew I had to do something
Beka Ntsanwisi, team owner

Her team-mate, 83-year-old Nora Makhubela, has survived six strokes and says kicking a ball has given her a new lease on life.

Ms Makhubela is not as fast as the younger players on the field, but she does not let that stop her from going after the ball with all she has.

"I feel that I am fitter than some women half my age because of the exercise I get every week. I am becoming stronger and stronger," she says with a smile forming on her wrinkled face.

Field of unity

Off the pitch, these women are pensioners, domestic workers and some street vendors, who sell anything from hand-made crafts to fruit and vegetables.

A granny celebrates after a friendly match in Nkowankowa
These grannies are believed to be the first in South Africa to play at this level

Reineth Mushwana, 59, says soccer has united young and old in this poor community.

"This has brought us together. We play with the youngsters and have fun together. We encourage them to play soccer because they might be our next soccer stars."

Family support is also important to these women.

"They come and watch us practising and then they attend our matches. This makes me very happy," beams Ms Makondo.

The team was set up in 2006 by cancer survivor Beka Ntsanwisi.

She says the idea came after she saw scores of old women suffering from chronic illnesses waiting in queues in clinics.

"I was receiving treatment for lung cancer at the time," she says. "Each time I went to the clinic I saw large numbers of grannies with diseases such as hypertension, arthritis and diabetes. I knew I had to do something.

"The doctors would tell me that even though was receiving treatment, I still needed to keep fit. I then decided to invite older women in my community to be part of a soccer club so we could exercise together."

We are not allowed to get rough with each other on the field. We also don't play with people who are faster than us or fitter because they might make us overexert ourselves
Mudjadji Makondo

Ms Ntsanwisi says some community members were initially sceptical but changed their mind when they saw as many as 80 women sign up to play.

Vakhegula Vakhegula is the main team, but over the years, Ms Ntsanwisi has set up seven other teams in Limpopo, which also hold regular training sessions.

She has formed a league called the Top Eight, in which teams of grannies compete twice a year.

"They look forward to the league all year around. We are not always able to have it, though, because we don't have sponsors. Most of the time I have to use my salary to try to buy kit for them and organise the event. It is not easy for me.

"I hope that as more people get to know about the league, we will get sponsors and be able to give award prizes," says Ms Ntsanwisi.

Playing nicely

As in any contact sport, there are bound to be some injuries, which is why the grannies say they are very strict about how players behave on the field.

"We are not allowed to get rough with each other on the field. We also don't play with people who are faster than us or fitter because they might make us overexert ourselves. We don't want to get injured," explains Ms Makondo.

Many of the players have at some point suffered a sprained ankle or arm, but they say the health benefits have outweighed the discomfort.



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