YOUTH DAY 2023
Soweto founder sacrifices from his own pocket to nurture young soccer stars in Naledi
The odds are stacked against them but the young stars of Mswenko FC are hopeful and dedicated.
Keizer Malise (34) watches with pride as a young man drives past Columbia Sports Ground in Soweto and waves frantically at him. “That’s one of our former players. He has played for Orlando Pirates under-17 and now he is in the National Division Football league,” he says.
Malise is the co-founder of Mswenko Football Club, which caters to youth from 13 to 26 years old. Its purpose goes beyond sports, as the club also offers homework assistance to all the young people who need it.
“I just want to get the kids away from drugs, especially oka pipe [a hookah pipe used to take drugs], which is so prevalent in the area. The main aim is to remove the older ones first so they can model that behaviour for the younger ones,” says Malise, who started the initiative in 2014.
There are more than 100 children at the club, who participate in practices and matches. Malise has created different roles for those who don’t make it on to the first teams in each division. Any means to keep the youth engaged, excited – and off the streets.
On Sunday morning, Columbia Sports Ground was alive with excitement as the different age groups prepared to play in a tournament, which they do weekly and bi-weekly. Thato Thoko, a former Mswenko player and now head coach at Mswenko FC, says his favourite part of his job is seeing kids’ smiles and their confidence grow.
Bridging the gap
“There are so many challenges they face at home and in sports. I am hoping to bridge the gap between professional level and amateur level. As you can see, the players have full kits and they play as professionally as any other player,” Thoko said as he pointed at the under-14 players in a match against a local rival team.
Thoko has played in the Premier Soccer League and says it made him realise the disparity between socio-economic backgrounds and how that plays a role in players being able to position themselves as world-class soccer stars.
“For example, they are playing in the dust, and when they get into the professional divisions they have to learn and adjust to the grass. We don’t have training equipment such as hurdles or balls we can send the kids home with so they can practise by themselves.
“I’d like us to have a training kit, so all the guys are equal here. They don’t have to worry about what they’re wearing, and it also brings an element of professionalism. We are slowly trying to bridge that gap between professional soccer and amateur soccer,” Thoko said.
On the lookout for sponsors
Malise chairs the football club and is constantly looking for sponsors to assist with food for when they attend tournaments, transport fees to matches, soccer boots, playing kits and training equipment.
All the age groups that were playing at the Columbia Sports Ground on Sunday were dressed in blue, in their full regalia. This was owing to Malise, Thoko and a small team who often make sacrifices from their salaries. There’s also a team of supporters that donate their services, such as the taxi driver who gives them discounts for travel costs.
“Businesses are not keen to sponsor soccer and netball anymore, but we try our best to ensure that everyone has everything they need to excel. I am grateful for the people who help,” Malise said.
Jacob “Makhanda” Nyaka coaches one of the longest-lasting football teams in Soweto, Naledi Juventus Football Club (NFD). He echoes Malise’s sentiments.
In the players’ corner
“There are drugs such as lean [codeine and soda] and oka pipes. We want to take the kids away. The government has left the youth in trouble by not dealing harshly with drugs. Most kids here don’t have parents so there is a lot that has to be done to give support,” Nyaka said.
Founded in 2006, Juventus has a long list of alumni who have gone on to do great things in life and soccer. Nyaka says the players who made it into the National First Division always pitch in to help buy meals on match days and whatever other needs that might come up.
“Even Keizer helps me when he can, sometimes he gives me R300 and I pitch where I can,” said Coach Makhanda, who is widely admired for his work and is one of Malise’s inspirations.
Mswenko player Naledi Khotle (18) says he wants to become a sports manager, after having a career playing professionally. “Soccer is like medicine to me. I am happy to play all the time. I joined Mswenko last year but I’ve played for New Hope Stars FC and others before,” he said.
Khotle added that he wished the youth received more support at home, “Maybe they can’t support because they are busy. We also lack equipment and the field is not in good condition, even though many teams train here.”
Asked what he thought of Youth Day, Khotle said: “Because black students were fighting for our freedom, I think the youth should join Youth Day programs to celebrate them.”
On Sunday, more than 300 children and young adults were on the field, with ladies’ soccer teams and netball players practising on the side of the main field, where the tournament matches were being played.
The sports ground doesn’t have water, isn’t properly fenced and doesn’t have shelter or seating for interested spectators. Community members sat on the grass supporting their favourite teams.
Kagiso Mokaleng (24) suffered an injury that put him off the field for six months. He couldn’t afford physiotherapy and worked his own way out of the injury.
“We appreciate the coaches; they show love and lots of support to us as players. We need more of that from home. Support from home is the biggest and most important thing we need to be successful,” Mokaleng said. DM