From Johannesburg, lesbian footballers chosen to play, choosing to live

Given that sport has caused so much contention for these women, it is strange that a football team would offer new hope. On the other hand, football, in which they have invested much, has helped pull them along to the truth. Several Chosen Few players describe childhoods of playing against boys and men in competitive holiday township tournaments, with each team putting up 500 South African rand (about $65) and trying to win the purse. Vuyo Ntwen, from Elliot, Eastern Cape, also played with boys and would spend the $20 her mother would occasionally send home from housekeeping work in Johannesburg on plastic footballs. When balls popped, she played with bags of oranges.

Sport has given Chosen Few a world platform along with other organizations (Flying Bats of Sydney—see 8 Aug 07—and Hackney Women’s FC of London) in the extended LGBT soccer network. In Aug 08 Chosen Few won silver at the International Gay and Lesbian Football Association games. Now they are raising money for the Gay Games starting 31 July in Cologne, Germany.

The word "Lesbian" on the Chosen Few kit rattles South African gender categories dating back to apartheid. Signs displayed during the 1991 trial of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela—“Homosex Is Not in Black Culture”—are subverted. Daily protocols change. On the trip back from Rustenburg I seek solitude in the men’s room of a service station. After 30 seconds, though, Chosen Few players have taken over, pounding on the door of the men’s stalls to evict other occupants. In reversing traditional gender roles, Chosen Few reaches back to early football’s connections to the carnivalesque. On this day, at least, they are the ones in athletic gear, calling the shots. They rewrite a myth of African straightness and the notion that heterosexuality offers the only path to decent living.

They attract hecklers, but also admirers. One of the team’s most loyal supporters is Marco, a mystical figure in red felt pants and black leather cap who says he has been to more Chosen Few matches than he can count. During the friendly he chain-smokes while standing at the base of one of the concrete lighting stanchions. He proves that everyone in South Africa has an opinion about football. His assessment of Chosen Few? "Lacking stamina and ball control."

Throughout the loss Chosen Few plays confidently, physically, barking messages in isiZulu. But despite the team’s intimacy before and afterward and their individual skills, they do not mesh. Selwyn Tsitsi, coach of the opponents, Titans FC, a top provincial side, said it has taken six years to make his team work together given the limited resources available to women’s teams. "When they started they were just running around," he says.

Chosen Few has the challenge of balancing organizational solidarity with results. There are also money issues. The team plays in the same boots they wore at the IGLFA competition 10 months earlier. It’s clear that integrating eros with sport has transformed lives. But does the football suffer?

Moore maintains a no-swearing pledge until early in the second half. Loss of possession at midfield prompts an outburst—“that woman I tell her the same fucking thing …” She throws her pen along the touchline. But in a gesture of grace and reconciliation, she walks to retrieve it.

Players seem to have found a balance that many straight persons covet. Playing in joy, they show what the heterosexual world often lacks—and certainly the world of elite men’s football. One such exemplar is the team’s goalkeeper, Matsheko Manik. On the trip to Rustenburg, Manik exudes professionalism and concentration from the last row of the van—there, as on the pitch, she leads from the back. Asked about the best women’s teams in South Africa, she says quietly, "My team is the best team." Twice per week via minibus taxi, she makes a one-hour round trip from Alexandra township for afternoon training.

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