Making Men at Izichwe Football Club

By | September 20th, 2013 | 8 Comments

Guest Post by *Liz Timbs

In August 2013, I had the privilege of spending three days with the Izichwe Football Club in Pietermaritzburg, capital of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. During my brief stay, I observed training sessions, visited players’ high schools, and interviewed some of the young men and coaches. The quotes below come from these conversations.

Every weekday afternoon at the University of KwaZulu-Natal campus in Pietermaritzburg, two dozen 10th grade-boys come together on a humble football pitch to hone their skills at Izichwe Football Club. Established in 2010 and named after the first military regiment (ibutho) commanded by Shaka Zulu, the club is “not just about kicking a ball,” says Thabo Dladla, founding director of Izichwe and Director of Soccer at UKZN. It is also about developing young men of character and respect who represent their communities and themselves with pride and honor.

Respect (inhlonipho in the Zulu language) and discipline (inkuliso) are core values at Izichwe as they are in Zulu culture more broadly. The coaches refer to the teenagers as amadoda (umarried young men) and even baba (father) to stress the importance of carrying themselves in a mature way on and off the pitch.

These two dozen high school boys at Izichwe embody the values and lessons imparted to them by their coaches, especially Thabo’s emphasis on showing self-respect as much as respect for others. When I spoke with the youngsters, they politely thanked me for coming to Pietermaritzburg to meet them and spoke with poise beyond their years.

“The program is not only about sports or soccer. It’s mostly about life,” Asanda tells me. Izichwe is “about respecting the people you are around, and playing fair, which applies in life. You do it the right way. Don’t cheat. Don’t cheat yourself.” Similarly, Simphiwe stated, without hesitation, that Izichwe had taught him “to work hard in life and to respect your instructors.” Asanda and Simphiwe’s statements were echoed in a team meeting I observed. Technical director Mhlanga Madondo, a police officer, entreated the players to look at their performances in the previous weekend’s tournament, stating that he expected them to “take responsibility for their own growth.”

Hard work is another crucial component of the Izichwe way. When I asked Lindi what the program had given him, he said, simply: “discipline.” Every day, without exception, the boys make their way to the university sports fields to train from 3:30p.m. to 5:30p.m. Many of the boys also play for their school teams at least one day a week (with one boy competing in cross country events in addition to playing school soccer). Saturday is match day in a local amateur league. Sundays are reserved for tournaments. This intense, demanding schedule instills in the boys not only physical endurance and strength, but mental acuity as well. Dladla believes this constant pressure shows the dedication and perseverance of his players. “Boys like Siphesehle (the cross country runner), he’s very, very competitive, you know? He did cross country; he came [to training], and I said, “Hey! You rest!” He said, “No, coach! I came to train!”

Although the players’ development as athletes is central to the program, Thabo, a former teacher and ex-professional footballer, regularly reminds players that “nothing in this life is as important as knowledge.” As a result, the program integrates numerous educational programs into their activities. Every night at the conclusion of practice, around 5:30, a group of the players gathers in a classroom on campus to study under the supervision of volunteer university students.

The coaches closely monitor individuals’ academic performance by reviewing school progress reports. This scrutiny, one parent explained, helps to “notice any hiccups in their progress at school.” In the opinion of Devon, the life sciences teacher at Alexandra High School, which several Izichwe boys attend, such devoted attention to player’s academics is unusual when compared with many other students who lack such careful supervision. “It’s a structured lifestyle which, I think, is lacking in a lot of our schools,” Devon explained. “I think that’s partly why these boys are so successful. They grow and they excel in every area.”

The youngsters openly expressed their gratitude to the adults who put precious time, energy, and resources into the program. “There are many kids out there who want this opportunity and we are very special to get that,” Mpumelelo said. Sandile stated unequivocally that the program has “changed the most part of my life.” Keelyn agreed, and without hesitation added that thanks to Izichwe, “I found myself.” Sandile spoke passionately about his appreciation for Izichwe: “Basically, what this program means to me is that it gives me the opportunity to realize a dream that I never thought . . . it was never something I believed I’d be able to do . . . it just made me realize, if I continue working hard enough, I can be one of the best players in the world.”

The Izichwe coaches are also grateful to be part of this project. Coach Madondo said that working with these young men has inspired him; he’s seen them “not just growing physically, but also [in] how to approach life.” Coach Ronnie “Reese” Chetty, who had a long coaching career including experiences in the United States, told me he is reinvigorated by the hard work and dedication these young men exhibit on a daily basis. The coaches are also driven and guided by the hardships, struggles, and perseverance of some of the players and families.

“It’s people like Sipesehle and Mhlengi’s mothers who sometimes give me lots of motivation when I see how hard they try, you know?” explained Thabo Dladla. “So then, I say: ‘Hey man! I cannot give up. I cannot let them down. So let me try and help them develop real men,’ you know?”

And from what I saw these Izichwe boys are becoming real men of immense diligence, humility, discipline, and respect. And, perhaps even more so, this community of boys, men, and parents demonstrates the great potential for grassroots soccer programs to fuel the development of not only athletic talent with a bright future in sport, but also of productive citizens in a democratic society.

*Liz Timbs is a PhD student in African history at Michigan State University. Her research interests are in the history of health and healing in South Africa; the professionalization of medicine; masculinity studies; and comparative studies between South Africa and the United States. Follow her on Twitter: @tizlimbs

What’s in a shoe?

By | September 20th, 2010 | 1 Comment

Izichwe thanks Viking Stavanger FC (Photo by Gemma Mcdonald)

From black high-cut steel-toe boots with leather studs to light, laceless pink boots with titanium studs, the history of football shoes is a journey from pain to pleasure.

Outside Europe and North America, however, millions of young players from working poor families cannot experience that special feeling of slipping on a fine pair of ‘real’ football boots. That is why this week’s generous gift of high quality boots from Viking Stavanger FC in Norway brought such joy to the boys of the Izichwe Youth Football program in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal.

Izichwe has also been invited to Norway for a major international tournament in May 2011. The solidarity of Viking (est. 1899) is doing a lot to open up opportunities for this terrific group of young South Africans.

Race, Class and SA Football

By | August 6th, 2010 | 1 Comment

Thabo Dladla (right) and Styles at Izichwe (Photo by Gemma Mcdonald)

‘Talking Football’ by Thabo Dladla  (Echo, 5 August 2010)

The euphoria and excitement that grew around football during the recent World Cup are not likely to boost the beautiful game in South Africa. If our attitudes do not change towards this predominantly black sport, it will remain a stepchild of South African sport for many years to come.

Rugby and cricket will continue to receive support from businesses and decision makers.  The black elites’ children attend private and formerly white high schools which promote rugby and cricket . . . [codes] which enjoy the best sporting facilities, all the way up to university level. The few facilities available to football are either poorly maintained or not maintained at all.

The system continues to support the rich and politically powerful. there are many black faces leading institutions such as schools, universities, municipalities and government departments, and yet football continues to struggle.

At university level rugby enjoys huge sponsorship and coverage on television while football [does] not despite the huge number of students who play the game . . . The young men and women in this age group should be competing in U20 and U23 competitions. The Izichwe Youth programme based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal strives to address some of the challenges faced by the needy youth.[The program receives support from Ilawu B.B., National Lottery, Metropolitan, Adidas and Viking Stavanger FC in Norway.]

The rich and powerful call for more police and prisons. Yet the country requires youth programmes to empower our youngsters socially, economically and academically, to shape their future. I would like to see a change in attitude from those who make decisions in government and business.

It is not only the rugby-playing children from middle class families who have dreams. Patriotism is not only about carrying flags and singing national anthems, it is more about caring and supporting your fellow citizens.

[Click to listen to podcast with Thabo Dladla and fellow coaches.]

South Africa’s Search for a National Playing Style

By | July 29th, 2010 | 5 Comments

Coach Styles teaching future Bafana and PSL stars in Pietermaritzburg (Photo by Gemma Mcdonald)

National football styles are intertwined with a country’s history and culture. Can Pitso Mosimane, Bafana Bafana’s new homegrown coach, develop a common ‘South African’ playing style? If the former SuperSport coach and Bafana assistant succeeds, he will have done better than his Brazilian, Romanian, English, Portuguese, and French predecessors.

‘South African football is a sort of United Nations,’ writes Izichwe Youth Football director Thabo Dladla in his ‘Talking Football’ column this week. ‘You have parts of the country like the Western Cape with their English influence, inland areas with diski [street style] influence, some German and Dutch influence in SAFA structures, [and more recently] Brazilian and Serbian influences.’

Clearly, Mosimane faces a daunting challenge in trying to craft a common style out of a melange of local and foreign influences. ‘South African football is more about ball retention and individual improvisation,’ Dladla notes.  ‘We grow up playing in small spaces, on hard, bumpy surfaces.  The small frame and short-to-medium height of the majority of our players make it logical to play mainly short passes on the ground.’

World champions Spain point the way forward for South Africa. It’s not a question of conveniently jumping on the winners’ bandwagon. Rather, Dladla notes that ‘Spanish football is based on technique, ball possession and nimble short-passing combination.’ That Spain’s 11 starters in the World Cup all play in La Liga further inspires many South Africans eager to raise the quality of the domestic Premier Soccer League.

Will South Africa’s performances improve under Mosimane? Will a new national style of play reflect the sharper sense of South Africanness left by the 2010 World Cup?  Perhaps, but until that time local fans will keep on blowing vuvuzelas in the stadiums: ‘They are bored,’ says Dladla, ‘There is nothing to entertain them between the lines.’

Talking Football in KwaZulu-Natal

By | March 12th, 2010 | 3 Comments

Coaching youths in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal

Thabo Dladla is a highly committed youth coach and former professional player with AmaZulu FC. His weekly ‘Talking Football’ column in a Pietermaritzburg newspaper focuses on the game at the grassroots, not on the 2010 World Cup or the PSL. ‘There is something wrong when a country with over 48 million people and a huge football budget cannot produce good players,’ writes Dladla this week.

‘I still believe that our country has some of the best talent at U12 level but poor leadership is letting the youth down. We have too many politicians and sports leaders who are more interested in the benefits that can be gained for themselves, than the sport itself.

‘Post 2010 South African youth deserve better than what they are getting now. The transformation of football should be felt at the lowest of levels. We can no longer allow a situation where a few get fatter while the players continue to suffer.’