South Africa (Reuters) – Barcelona soccer club have been training this week on a grassless, hard-dirt pitch in South Africa’s Mangaung township. Not Lionel Messi and his team of champions from Spain, but a group of local youths.
They have no sponsorship from Coca Cola, McDonald’s, or anyone else. They cannot afford tickets to see Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and other household names from England when they come to Bloemfontein to play Germany in the World Cup on Sunday.
Yet if the future of African soccer lies anywhere, it may well be with impoverished but impassioned kids like these.
“I wake up thinking about football. Football means so much to me. I think I will make it,” said Matthews Leeuw, an 18-year-old schoolboy, during a break in afternoon training.
The playing field is on a garbage-strewn waste ground in Manguang on the edge of Bloemfontein, a vast expanse of tin shacks, squat breeze-block homes, taverns and car repair shops.
The black residential districts known as townships are a legacy of South Africa’s apartheid regime and although they no longer suffer the political oppression of that era, many are still bleak, deprived areas where life is tough.
The goals have no nets, the pitch is strewn with broken glass, and the young players’ leave their clothes in plastic shopping bags after changing into ragged shorts and split boots. Cows sometimes wander over.
“Only the city people get chances. No scouts come down here,” Leeuw said.
Barcelona are run by Quentin Sewele, 26, a township resident who once played for local side the Mighty Lions. He started the team a year ago and they will make their debut in the city’s Metropolitan League in August.
He chose the name because he liked Barcelona, he said.
“I want the team to play like Barcelona. They are all schoolkids. When I was their age, I had a team, so I thought why not start one? It motivates them.”
He funds them himself, even though he has no permanent job. For their league debut, they will wear white T-shirts he bought at a local store.
NO TICKETS FOR THE BIG MATCH
The World Cup has thrilled the boys even though South Africa have gone out and only Ghana of the other African teams taking part look likely to progress to the second round of the tournament, the first to be held in the continent.
“It’s good for Africa. I tell everyone the time will come for Africa. This was not the time,” Sewele said.
He said he had three players he thought had future prospects and introduced a reporter to 17-year-old Kaptein Msiwonakele.
“Football means everything to me. I play for the passion. It is my first priority. I want to become professional, especially to play for Manchester United,” Msiwonakele said.
He said his parents had left him and he lived with his grandmother. He watched the World Cup on television with friends.
He was disappointed South Africa were eliminated but proud of their performance, which saw them beat 2006 runners-up France 2-1 in their final game.
“I’m still interested. It is the first time in Africa. Only Ghana are through but I think they are going to make us proud. They are going places,” he said.
They were excited about the prospect of the England v Germany match taking place in Bloemfontein and dreamed of meeting the likes of Frank Lampard and Steve Gerrard.
“I just wish we had some money to take these players to the stadium,” Sewele said.
Still, Leeuw said, the Barcelona boys had learnt a lot from watching the games on TV.
“We are the future. We want to represent South Africa.”