Afrika’s tale—saved from the streets to play on the streets

South Africa team captain Afrika sizes himself up against Internazionale greats at the San Siro in Milan. (© 2009 Christina Ghubril)

Football’s powers of resurrection have rarely had a better exemplar than Martin Afrika. The 32-year-old captain for South Africa at the Homeless World Cup, which concluded Sept 13 in Milan, literally has reconstructed his identity through sport.

Before the 2008 tournament in Melbourne, for which he had qualified through an extended culling process in Western Cape, Afrika had to prove his existence to South African authorities in what turned out to be a race against time. It was a race he lost.

Put out of his home at five, imprisoned by 11 and shot four times as a member of one of the so-called number gangs in Clarke’s Estate, a “coloured” township in Cape Flats, Afrika bears scars and tattoos from a life shaped by institutionalized violence. Afrika’s brother serves in Pollsmoor maximum security prison for having murdered their father. Number gangs, with ties to similar gangs in prisons, have origins in the resettlement of mixed-race populations in Cape Flats under the 1950 Group Areas Act. Generations marginalized by apartheid still pay the cost.

Interview with Afrika, from Cape Town, Sept 17. (21:51) Download »

“He’s survived, and I don’t know how he’s done it,” says Linzi Thomas, former film producer and founder of MylifE, a life-skills program for street children. Given Cape Town’s postcard setting, that vagrancy and drug use have taken hold among small children comes as a shock. Thomas says she has encountered children as young as seven using crack cocaine.

To help in the rehabilitation process, MylifE early in its work formed a football team. After the 2008 Homeless World Cup trials, Thomas approached Afrika to offer the group’s resources, including a place to live.

Afrika credits Thomas and MylifE for bringing him back to football, which is omnipresent in Cape Flats as well as in prisons, where Afrika played 11-a-side. Once selected for the 2008 trials, he stopped using drugs. After spending his energy at football training, he found himself losing desire for alcohol, drugs and the trappings of gangsterism.

Street football, the four-on-four court variant played at the Homeless World Cup, meshes well in a city environment of limited spaces and improvised rules. Matches last 14 minutes. Although the program has yet to become rooted across South Africa, more than 500 now participate weekly in a Western Cape league on 16m-x-22m pitches chalked onto car-park pavement.

David Abrahams, co-director of South African Homeless Street Soccer, emphasizes that players resolve all conflicts during games. Given the confines in street football, play tends to be fast and physical.

A primer on South African street football featuring Abrahams, Afrika and others. (3:12) (© 2008 Demetrius Wren)

Abrahams attracted the program’s principal funder, Florida-based From Us with Love, by demonstrating the sport’s magnetic appeal in the Cape Town business district. The group’s operations manager, Mike Mastrocinque, recalls Abrahams setting up portable goalposts in parking lots. “Before you knew it,” Mastrocinque says, “you had matches going on, you had people in the community coming to watch it.”

He was also impressed by soccer’s transformative dimension. The sport offered respite from homelessness and addiction but also the residual benefit of motivating participants to take literacy classes, visit job-skill centers and reunite with families. Further, street football changes views of people who watch the homeless play. Barriers of racism and economic status seem less important afterward.

“If you would have told me that you could use soccer as a tool to make an impact on homeless people’s lives like this, I’d have told you you’re crazy,” Mastrocinque says. “Being there and seeing it with my own eyes, I’m amazed at how this impacts their lives.”

Football rescued Afrika again after the futile quest for proof of ID before the 2008 Homeless World Cup. Navigating the tangle of paper-producing agencies on their clients’ behalf might be the biggest headache facing advocates for the displaced and transient worldwide. In Afrika’s case, he had to locate his parents’ death certificates, track down birth records and find evidence of enrollment at his first school. By Apr 09, with Afrika on the rebound from a drug relapse, South African authorities told him his fingerprints resembled someone from Madagascar. Ultimately, the Department of Home Affairs assisted with certifying Afrika’s travel visa to Italy.

Afrika faced other problems. On the website of an in-process documentary about the side, Streetball, funded by From Us with Love, filmmaker Demetrius Wren reports seeing Afrika return to trials following the relapse:

He looks like he has lost a bit of weight and has some sadness in him where there used to be pure adrenaline and excitement. He got kicked out of MyLife, he says for bringing his girlfriend over, and spent a few weeks back on the street and had everything he owned stolen from him. The depression of his circumstances led him back to drugs, none of which he was happy about. Since he is trying out for the 2009 team, he is back living at MyLife but doesn’t feel like he is as loved or accepted by his community as he once did. Due to his appearance and tattoos he has gathered that there are people who do not want to be seen with him, since he looks like a gangster. He has had troubles with some of his old relationships following him, particularly when he leaves his current community and, for example, goes to visit his son. He was chased by a rival gang the last time he dropped his son off and was scared for his life.

In an interview Sept 17, however, four days after winning the City of Milan Cup, one of five lower-tier trophies in the 48-team tournament, Afrika credited football and Thomas’s intervention with restoring his sense of potential. He also could have thanked Penny Streeter, native Zimbabwean and founder of Ambition 24hours, the team’s shirt sponsor, for funding air travel and for other donations that made up the balance when the city of Cape Town withdrew its funding at the last minute.

“I can be the person that I think I can be,” is the mantra that Afrika credits to MylifE. “The past is the past. You can’t go back to your past and do right what you did wrong. But you can do right into the future. That’s how we changed my life.”

Getting such fundamentals to translate to the tactics board is not easy. South Africa—Afrika along with Cheslyn Jacobs, Asanda Mini, Ephraim Maarman, Collen Davids, Rushaad Grootboom, Thulisile Bolana and Siphiwe Mayesela—in Milan quickly encountered the quality and speed of play that can be difficult to replicate in practice. On consecutive days they lost to Hungary (8–9), Ghana (4–7), Ireland (3–10), Lithuania (1–7). Mini, who had looked forward to the spaghetti in Milan, was injured against Ghana and would miss the remaining seven matches. South Africa’s dream of returning with a trophy was slipping away. But with help of coach Alan Lotz and manager Gavin Cohen they studied opponents, called team meetings and worked on communication.

“Football is about winning and losing, but you must never give up, win or lose,” Afrika says. “What makes a better man is a man who lost and always [is] happy. … That makes a better player than a player that drinks and celebrates.”

With its culminating 9–1 victory over Malawi on Sept 13, South Africa finished 17th. Two days after winning the Milan trophy the side met deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, who noted the benefits of football’s intrinsic emphasis on goal-setting. “Football is not just a game,” he said. “Football is actually a philosophy of life.”

To Thomas, the trip to Italy transformed Afrika—the oldest member of the side—from ex-gangster to little boy. World travel did not come easily at the beginning. On the journey’s first leg between Cape Town and Johannesburg, players had to be ushered from the aisle back to their seats when they thought the plane was headed for a crash landing.

Afrika has become a world citizen. His parting words are diplomatic. “You enjoy the evening in America and say hi for everybody.”

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. I think that Martin’s example is worth its weight in gold. It is a story of suffering and triumph over suffering. It is a story of perseverance, and it is as story of people who reached out to him with love and him responding. It takes courage to hope or to trust, and it takes tremendous character to persevere. When Martin stuck with his dream we all became a bit better for it. The journey is not over, but I believe he now knows something about himself and life that is worth knowing. It is not where you start but how you finish, and if you stick to your dream miracles do sometimes happen. I pray that Martin stays with his game plan and reaches out to others who need his help. It is a lot to carry but I think he can do it.

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