by Masego Panyane
For the people of Little Mogadishu, life in South Africa is characterised by a constant attempt to survive the harsh realities of being “a foreigner”. They have, however, found something that can help ease the sting of that reality – football.
The first thing that catches your eye as you walk up to the Mayfair Bowling Club is the fence that has fallen down at one place and the heap of rubbish that lies there. Then, as you move closer, you see a few patches of grass. It’s uneven land, about the size of a normal soccer pitch, and a couple of sharp rocks stick out of the ground.
This is the place the Mayfair Young Stars Football League uses as its home ground. The league, which is made up of players of foreign nationalities, is the pride of the community of Little Mogadishu. The lives of foreign nationals in South Africa are filled with many unpleasant experiences. For this community of Somali refugees and asylum seekers, football provides them with a sense of normality.
The area is home to an estimated 6 000 refugees and asylum seekers, most of them Somali, and has long been a safe haven as well as being accused, without proof, of being a source of Islamic militancy.
I walked into the area as a black, Christian young woman and soon found myself talking about something as masculine as football to the men in the community. I was not chased out. Instead, I soon found myself in impassioned conversations about Manchester United and why they aren’t the team to beat in the English Premier League.
The passion for soccer carries off the field in Little Mogadishu, the heart of which is on 8th Avenue in Mayfair, Johannesburg.
Malelo Abdool, a 24-year-old businesswoman, decided to start up an informal games arcade in Little Mogadishu after realising that there wasn’t much to do in the area for the children. She took a small shop space, installed plasma screens and PS4 consoles, put in a couple of chairs and bean bags, and the ultimate chill spot was ready.
Abdool’s gaming store is unlike most others. Where you would normally expect a range of gaming experiences, her store contains only football-related games, with versions of the games for every year. “The kids [here]are very inspired by soccer … I tried putting in other games like Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and they just didn’t play them. So I put in games like FIFA 16 because there’s a demand for them,” she said.
With the community being so football crazy, it only made sense that they would have their own football club. But how the club came about, along with its ups and downs, isn’t that simple.
Greater Mayfair Local Football Association (GMLFA or GML) is the managing body of all local football-related activities in the western and southern parts of Johannesburg. The organisation, which is affiliated to the South African Football Association (Safa), oversees six local football leagues that are divided by age.
Local Somalis began playing in the Greater Mayfair LFA in 2008. They encountered problems in the league and could not advance to higher Safa leagues because they did not have South African ID books.
“We couldn’t challenge them. We don’t have lawyers … We don’t have anybody so we left the league,” said Mohammed “Mash”, 34, a member of the Somali Football Association.
In response, the Somalis formed a league of their own, the Mayfair Young Stars, in 2009, shortly before South Africa’s Soccer World Cup. This league meant they could continue playing football in their community outside of Safa’s regulations.
But the experience still left a bitter taste and the founder members believe they were kicked out of the league because they are Somali.
“In the GML we ended up being blamed for everything … If a fight broke out, ‘it’s the Somalis,’ they said, if there were any kinds of problems, it would be the Somali people causing the trouble they believed,” said Mash.
“It became unfair when they would make us stop games because we were winning. The last problem was when they didn’t want us to go to the next level because we didn’t have ID books,” he said.
Safa’s regulations, however, state that foreign players are allowed to participate in regional, inter-regional and national competitions provided they meet a number of conditions. These are that a) there cannot be more than three foreign players registered in one team; b) they must have valid documentation such as a valid asylum seeker’s permit, passport or any other international clearance certificate provided for in the Immigration Act and c) that they meet the eligibility criteria set out by Safa of different age groups.
But according to the members of the Somali community, the reason for their exclusion was simple: the Greater Mayfair LFA was motivated by a dislike for them steeped in xenophobia.
Nadia Patel, secretary of the Greater Mayfair LFA, agreed the Somalis could not advance because of documentation, but denies they were victimised because of xenophobia.
“The only reason we could not let them play is because of that Safa regulation. We even established another social league where teams that are completely foreign can play socially, for teams like Mayfair Young Stars,” said Patel.
“We had a couple of issues with discipline with Young Stars, but we have never discriminated against them because they are Somali.”
It was after this series of events that the idea to form Mayfair Young Stars was born, a team for a generation of Somalis born in South Africa.
“We said these youngsters are South Africans, they were born here, maybe when they reach there, they will have the advantage of joining the formal league,” Mash said.
Losing out on playing in the formal GML had some serious consequences for the Somali footballers. They lost some good team members and a coach but, most importantly, they lost out on a space to play their football.
“When they managed to kick us out because of that Safa rule, they also blocked us from using the grounds we used to practise and play on. So whenever we’d try to get in, the guard would tell us R200 per hour or not let us in at all,” said Aydruz Ismail, manager of the Mayfair Young Stars League.
The situation was devastating for the team. The senior team realised they would be wasting their time pursuing semi-professional football careers in South Africa. They did not have the correct documentation and, to their knowledge, this would prevent them from playing.
The senior team saw it as their duty to get the league up and running for the next generation of Somali footballers. Establishing the league happened fairly easily because the community was already very attached to football. Many of the young people in the area used to play recreationally, so bringing them together wasn’t a far-fetched idea.
“When we established Young Stars, there were a few youngsters who used to play by the park by themselves. We collect them … and they formed their own teams,” said Ismail.
Huddled in front of TV screens in Abdool’s game shop are a number of young men who play for Mayfair Young Stars. They are in a particularly heated discussion about who is the best midfielder in the community league. It becomes obvious how important the space to play and polish their football skills is to these young men. For people like Mohamed Abdool, 18, and his friend and team-mate Osman Yasin, 15, having the league keeps them healthy, but they also get to try out some of the tricks they see on television.
“I love the sport, I have a passion for the sport. I’m planning to go to London … I want to play for one of the Premier League’s teams,” stammers Mohamed excitedly. His friend Osman also wants to play in Europe someday.
For the two young men, the opportunity to play in the Mayfair Young Stars League is a step closer to these dreams.
Mohamed began his career at Young Stars playing for the senior team but he asked to return to the lower level team in his age grouping to get more game time. Osman describes him as an intelligent player who has a bit of Argentinian player Lionel Messi in him.
Osman, a central midfielder, started playing football because all his friends were playing it. He says his plan after he finishes matric is to succeed in football. If that doesn’t work out, then he’ll settle for being a computer software engineer.
For the boys, it is worrying that, even though they were born in South Africa, they may not have a stable enough future in football because of their documentation. For them, there’s nothing they would rather do than play football. As clichéd as this may sound, football is their life.
“There isn’t enough opportunity here. Even when I was playing for the Orlando Pirates Academy, they’d always ask us for documents and that is limiting us, that’s why I want to go international,” Mohamed said.
Mayfair Young Stars have their matches every weekend because they do not want to disturb the young people with their schooling. Mash added that the major purpose of having organised football in the community is to keep the boys out of trouble.
For some of the other young men like Abdullahi Mohammed, 19, the creation of this league gives them a sense of belonging and it keeps hope alive – that they could one day play professional football – despite not being able to play in the formal GML.
“The committee of the GMLFA is racist towards Somalis. Even though for most of us that played in those teams, we’ve never seen Somalia before. We were born here, this is our home,” he said.
Mohammed said they experienced injustices at the GML because of what he calls “xenophobia”. Mohammed said he never experienced xenophobia when he played for premier league teams like Bidvest Wits and Jomo Cosmos that had a number of foreign players playing for them.
The Mayfair Young Stars Football League has become an important part of the lives of the men, young men and boys of the community. It has given them hope that, even in South Africa, where it may sometimes seem almost impossible to get correct documentation or citizenship, they can still hold onto their passion for football and, for some of the younger ones, to maybe become world-renowned football players.
It’s a hot morning in mid-October at the former home of the Mayfair Bowling Club. Outside in the yard, two tattered nets stand at the opposite ends of the grounds. The grounds themselves could do with a bit of TLC, maybe a new bunch of grass could be planted and watered to give the grounds a healthier feel.
The grounds are not marked like a normal football field would be but everyone seems to have an idea of where the centre of the pitch is and where the lines to mark the boundaries are.
In this particularly heated encounter between Somali teams Man City and the Punishers, the most important things at stake here are respect and bragging rights. Both teams play with skill that one does not expect from a group of teenage boys. They are determined and play with the flair and intelligence we all miss seeing in professional football matches.
The soccer games attract a number of men in the community, ordinary men who have a keen interest in football and want to see who the bright youngsters to look out for are.
The supporters of the Punishers are adamant that the referee has made a series of decisions against them, all because he doesn’t like them. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that they trailed for most of the match behind Man City by a single goal.
After I watch pure magic at the feet of these boys, the match draws to a close with the final score line being Man City 3-2 Punishers (Man City actually scored 4 goals because of the own goal scored in the 23rd minute). Man City walk away with the ultimate bragging rights for the upcoming week.
After watching these young men play as if they are playing to get paid, one wonders if any of them will be able to make it professionally with the number of obstacles that stand in their way. It is very clear that breaking into the professional football scene here will be difficult for the boys.
But once they do, they will be a sight to behold. For now, they work at becoming the best of the best. The boys continue to play FIFA at the game shop and practise their tackles on the uneven pitch of the Mayfair Bowling Club, one match at a time.