Hout Bay United, more than a football club

The amateur club from the Western Cape uses football to bring about social change in Hout Bay while helping its players find employment and excel at school.

Within the picturesque valley of Hout Bay, about 20 minutes from the centre of Cape Town, there is a football project so unique and packed with potential that it has won the admiration and patronage of Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp.

Hout Bay United has become a shining example of integration, with the rainbow colours across the top of the club’s blue shirts giving a clue as to their intentions. Much more than a football club, it is a vehicle to unite a diverse group of people living in close proximity and assist in breaking the cycle of poverty that remains a daily affliction for so many in the area.

Hout Bay is in many ways a microcosm of present-day South Africa, where citizens of all races mingle and share the same rights, yet remain deeply divided along economic lines that, almost three decades since the end of apartheid, have failed to blur.

There are the largely middle-to-high income white households; those classified as coloured under apartheid, which has traditionally been based in the valley’s harbour area; and the black African residents of Imizamo Yethu township where, for many, life continues to be a daily struggle. 

With mountains to the north, east and west, and the sea to the south, this is a community “cut off” from the rest of Cape Town, visually at least, which has grown a sense of pride and togetherness. During the 1980s, locals began selling gimmick passports for the self-styled autonomous Republic of Hout Bay, ostensibly for tourism reasons, but according to some to also show disapproval of the apartheid government of the time.

The Hout Bay football club competes in the South African third tier, the Western Cape ABC Motsepe League, and has ambitions of one day featuring in the country’s premier division. But that is only scratching the surface of what the project is about.

Local is lekker 

The club draws its players exclusively from Hout Bay and holds a similar ethos to Spanish La Liga side Athletic Bilbao, which only selects footballers from the Basque region. Bilbao coaches presented to the club last year how to develop player pathways to success, which proved a big step forward in developing its future plans.

“Our goals are to bring the communities of Hout Bay together,” United chief executive Dali Fekensini says. “We are still divided predominantly by race, creed and culture. When the club was formed, we wanted to unite all those communities, and we are succeeding. 

“One of our goals is to bring hope and pride to the people of Hout Bay by having a successful elite team. Every home game we have around 2 000 people watching. The crime rate [when we play] on a Friday is low, because everybody is watching the football. That fact is backed by the local police.”

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There are 15 teams across all age groups, with 450 players, including successful women and men’s elite sides. Nico Manduzio, the club “healthcare and wellbeing team leader”, has been charged with building relationships between first-team players and residents, which includes finding employment for them with local businesses. He also helps facilitate interactions with schools to ensure the club’s young players are not falling behind off the pitch.

“What makes us different to other football clubs is the personal development pathway. We believe that players must have six key attributes, three on the pitch and three off of it,” Manduzio says. “On the pitch it is what you would expect, technical, tactical and physical attributes. Off the pitch it is mental, personal and lifestyle. If you are able to improve one of these, it is like a cog that turns and advances the one next to it.

“Besides two or three guys, none of our players finished school. But we profile them and place them with jobs in local businesses that suit their interests and skill sets. The player works at the business for free for a month’s trial, though we as a club pay him something, and hopefully then the business employs him full time. This gives them work and life experience, as well as helping them feed their families. It has been a great success. Each player must also do four hours of community service a week. It is compulsory.”

Setting high standards 

Every player in the current first team squad is either employed by the club as a coach for the youth teams, working for a local business or studying at a tertiary level. Manduzio, who is also the first team fitness coach, adds that the standards they set for their players are well above that of your average amateur.

“Our performance benchmarks are based on those used in the English Premier League, so the standards are very, very high.”

The Premier League link comes from one of the club’s patrons, Liverpool’s Uefa Champions League-winning manager Klopp, who in November said of the project: They are “fantastic coaches who want to create a better world for kids through football. I was there. It is brilliant.”

One of the club’s founders, Jeremy Elson, explains the connection and how Klopp has gone on to support the club financially, as well as by sharing his knowledge. “Jürgen’s manager, Mark Kosicky, lived in [nearby] Llandudno for about 18 months, and he fell in love with the project,” Elson said.

“Jürgen came out and did a talk for us and has helped financially. We want to align our [football] philosophy and Jürgen’s, but obviously some of the stuff they do [at Liverpool] is so advanced.

“The stuff that we can borrow [with our players], we already know, and there are levels we need to work through to get there. [Liverpool] pretty much manage every second of a football game, they know what they are doing all the time. But we are hopeful we can work even more closely in the future.”

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Elson is also extremely proud of the work the club does in the area, which is what piqued Klopp’s interest, and the aspirational way in which they interact with players who arrive at training with all their worldly belongings in a plastic bag.

He says part of the reason they insist on employment and community service is to instil ambition in players beyond only thinking about tomorrow’s meal. The club is the brainchild of Englishman Elson, along with co-founders Simon Trupp and Jaap Kreeftenberg. Hout Bay grew out of their interactions through social football games with residents from all walks of life.

“It was the only part of my Cape Town existence that was similar to being in London in terms of being in a completely level space with regards to culture, community and class. All those barriers were broken down by football,” Elson says.   

“We saw the need to create strong mentors in this community and use football as the ‘stick’. We have evolved the project since then. We want to develop this philosophy into a curriculum and help to develop sport in the local schools. If we can get this to work, it is a huge story of success built across communities. It is a huge story for South Africa.”

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