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Soweto School of Diski

by Andy Davis, images by Justin McGee / 23.06.2010

I’m standing in front of a huge TV screen, in a plush new football center in Soweto, watching Bafana vs Uruguay. On screen, we’re lining up for the national anthems, as the first strains of Nkosi Sikelele sound, people jump to their feet and start singing. Spontaneous and abandoned. Shades of liberation. Not since the early 90s have I sung that song like that. As if it meant something. A surge of togetherness and nostalgia. We’re still the rainbow nation. God bless Afrika, indeed.

These days, Soweto has an open door policy. I remember a time when everyone from the privileged North was much too scared to venture near the South Western Township, let alone in it. Nowadays Vilikazi Street buzzes all night for an integrated crowd, the Orlando Stadium hosts thousands of Blue Bulls supporters, the Lions are planning a move to Soccer City and the Maponya Mall provides a globo-shopping experience for South Africans of all hues. What I mean is, it’s no longer a big thing to be a whitey in Soweto.

“This used to be a small club house, with a few locker rooms, and four under-nourished pitches.” Says Kemi Benjamin as he shows us around the new Nike Football Training Centre in Soweto. It was the eve of Bafana’s disastrous match with Uruguay. Cold and crisp, the way the Highveld serves winter days in Soweto. I was initially lured to the centre with promises of entertainment, free booze, canapes and the chance to compare notes with the traveling intelligentsia from New York’s The Fader magazine, collaborating with Nike on the Pitch Perfect campaign. Soweto is also a great place to watch the game. People were already starting to blaas their vuvuzelas out on the street and it was only lunch time. Fela’s kid, Seun Kuti was headlining along with Tumi and his Whole Worlds band, Spoek Mathambo and the Dirty Paraffin guys and DJ Cleo.

But on arrival, it soon became apparent that the real star of this gig was the training centre itself. A purpose-built beacon of footballing excellence slap bang in the middle of Diepkloof, Soweto.
“Nike is committed to giving young aspiring footballers the opportunity to become better footballers,” says Kemi. “We’ve always been committed to youth development in South Africa and this project is an extension of our efforts. South Africa is an important market for us.”

In so many ways, Bafana’s assault on the World Cup was always “the impossible dream”. It was ridiculous to think that we could arrest the rankings free fall of our national team and for them to be competitive against the world’s best when they couldn’t even qualify for the African Nations Cup, earlier this year. The fact that we managed to almost scrape qualification for the round of 16 is testament to how far we’ve come, but the real expectation for Bafana lies ahead in 2014 in Brazil and 2018 wherever. Nike seem to understand this, and the one thing they have access to is the world’s best football players. From Cristiano Ronaldo to Didier Drogba and Cesc Fabregas – they all wear the swoosh on the boot – and they can all contribute to making young South African footballers better. And in so doing, Nike have dropped a considerable amount of coin in establishing this bit of legacy.

On average, the Soweto Football Training Center sees about 20 000 kids between the ages of 17 and 22 years old playing on their fields every month. The idea of the centre is to not only provide the space and equipment to hone their footballing skills but also to inspire them by giving them a taste of top flight football. The pitch is Fifa accredited to international standards. The changing rooms are of a standard that professional football players would expect at a place like the Emirates stadium or Old Trafford. As you exit the changing rooms and head towards the field you walk over the words: “Play to be remembered”. As you come through the tunnel, flanked by metallic images of the footballing greats, you walk over the final message: “No excuses” before stepping onto the field.

Inside the center is a bank of brand new Apple mac computers, all running the Nike Football Plus software, an online training program. The kids can follow the same training drills as Fabregas, Rooney, Itumeleng Khune, Siphiwe Tshabalala or any of the other Nike athletes whose performance they wish to emulate. “Its about the kids understanding what those athletes go through, how much they train and inspire them to do the same.” Says Kemi. “All the Nike Football athletes are here. How they train, how they compete and how they live.”
You can download their skills sheets, their training drills and specialized diets. In another corner the teams can customize their boots and get their team shirts printed straight away. Then there’s a large lounge with a huge TV screen on one wall and a space for discussing the tactical elements of the game, all overlooking the fields.

In the back, the center offers Aids testing and counseling, as well as Aids awareness and education workshops. On the roof DJ Cleo was running a music workshop and out in the courtyard some local creatives were teaching the kids how to silk screen their own tee-shirts. The place was a hive of activity, all building up to the concert and the Bafana game later that night.

By the time the sun slid towards the horizon and tinged the dusty streets a deep golden brown, the party was starting to kick in. Cold groups of hipsters crowded around the gas heaters nursing glasses of beer and taking in the view over towards the Orlando Stadium, the vuvuzelas on the street are in full swing and seem to compliment DJ Cleo’s deep house beats. Spoek Mathambo and Dirty Paraffin ratchet things up a couple of notches. The booze is flowing steadily, mainly to keep the cold at bay, as people shuffle together under the gas lamps. Tumi, backed by Richard and Alex from Isochronous and Peach, Yesterday’s Pupil, Van Pletzen on drums – and supported by MXO on the mic, takes us through most of the hits on his album. It’s infectious and entertaining, but the cold is starting to bite. By the time Seun Kuti makes the stage, backed by his Nigerian all star brass band, backing singers and percussion section, the crowd is packed in tight. Seun looks like a facsimile of his pops, in tight bright green 70s pants and shirt. He brings enough of that frenetic tropical Afrobeat energy to the stage to keep warm. But his players are wrapped up tight. Hoods pulled over heads with just enough face peeking out to wrap lips around a saxophone, or blow into a trumpet. It’s nice to watch that continental Afrobeat sound vibrate outwards over the tin roofs of Soweto, and mingle with the low-lying smoke from all those home fires. As Seun winds it down, the big TV flickers to life downstairs. The crowd fill up their cups and head down, filled with anticipation and hope.

Check out more images from Pitch Perfect here.

Download the 100 % mahala (as in free, we’re not taking the credit) Nike x The Fader Pitch Perfect mix tapes here.

All images © Justin McGee.

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