NAIROBI: When I was born, 25 years ago, it would have been rare — even taboo — to find African women discussing soccer. But that is what my girlfriends and I now do.
I grew up in Kenya, where my compatriots follow the English Premier League zealously, perhaps because of our colonial connection to England. Kenyans are so passionate about the Premier League that last year an Arsenal fan, Suleiman Omondi, hanged himself after his team lost to Manchester United. This year, another Arsenal fan in the coastal town of Lamu stabbed a Manchester United fan in the stomach.
Kenyan women love soccer, too. I’m a Chelsea fan, and so are most of my girlfriends. We rarely disagree. We console each other when Chelsea loses, and worry together when our team plays big clubs, like recently when they played Liverpool, the only major contender that stood between Chelsea and the English title. Fortunately, Chelsea won.
But, as the World Cup moves into its quarter and semi-final matches, my girlfriends have started to argue. Although we don’t exchange blows like men, we are just as passionate, especially since the world’s most famous tournament is being played on our continent. Sometimes it seems like we spend more time arguing about soccer than we do chatting about men.
At the tournament’s start, my girlfriends and I could not seem to agree on which team to support. Should we pick from Algeria, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa, the countries representing Africa? We were torn between the natural instinct to root for our brothers and the urge to side with the likes of Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Germany, and others who seemed more likely to win. Initially, I supported France, because I like Chelsea’s Nicolas Anelka, though as an African woman I also could not resist the dream of chanting with joy those times when an African team won.
That we, young African women, are talking more about the sport is a sign of hope for women’s soccer on the continent. A senior sports writer with a Kenyan daily paper recently told me that this time women seem to be interested in learning the rules of the game and knowing more about players and their positions. They want to enjoy the game, rather than sit in the company of their male relatives, oblivious to what’s happening on the pitch.
But will the 2010 World Cup bring African women more than just fodder for gossip? Holding the 1994 World Cup in the United States increased soccer’s popularity there and led to the creation of Major League Soccer in 1996. And, in 1999, the US hosted and won its second women’s World Cup, leading to a women’s soccer revolution in the country. The label “soccer mom” has become common in the US, as more women enroll their children in soccer camps. Will holding the world’s greatest single sporting event in Africa spark similar interest for the continent’s women?
I was encouraged recently to read about Simphiwe Dludlu, a female player who has become one of South Africa’s top sports personalities. FIFA has invited her to assist at the official World Cup opening ceremony. Dludlu has been playing since the age of 10, and currently plies her trade at Tuks FC in Pretoria, where she is also studying at university. In 2006 Dludlu got her first call to join the Banyana Banyana, as the South African women’s team is called, and has 33 caps. Her success clearly shows that African women football players can reach great heights. But for most African young women and girls, it’s not that simple.
Although women’s soccer in Africa is as old as the republics themselves (the first teams appeared in West Africa in early 1960), soccer on the continent is still a man’s sport. Most African wives dread the season. They become soccer widows, as their husbands flock to bars. Every day at dinner, mothers are left alone to answer when children ask if daddy still lives in the house.
Even wives of men who watch the game at home have got other issues to deal with. For instance, Joyce, my former workmate, has a husband who is a diehard Manchester United fan. Every season, he breaks at least one piece of furniture when his team loses. Couches are stained with beer, and kicked as he cheers his favorite teams. She has changed her furniture at least twice since she got married four years ago.
Given male dominance in African politics and soccer, any chance to improve the state of the sport that might arise from the 2010 World Cup will most likely benefit men. That is because in most African countries, even men’s national teams are struggling. Male youth soccer camps and leagues are either nonexistent or mediocre.
Until brought to a level where they can compete in international tournaments beyond Africa, women’s soccer teams will continue to struggle. And, considering the rampant corruption that plagues our continent, it might take a century to see male soccer teams managed and funded sufficiently.
American women improved their game because soccer moms do not heavily rely on husbands to fund their daughters’ training. As more African women continue to be educated, I dream of the day when we, too, will be able to decide for ourselves.
I was, however, encouraged to learn that in South Africa, women of my mother’s generation have been playing in a soccer league for five years. After the World Cup, Vakhegula Vakhegula (The Grannies), a team of women between 50 and 84 years old, will travel to the US to play in the Veteran’s Cup. Our boys may not win in South Africa, but maybe The Grannies can show how it is done.
Juliet Torome, a writer and documentary filmmaker, was awarded Cine-source Magazine’s first annual Flaherty documentary award in 2009. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).