The pitch was still damp with dew when one of the greatest games of football kicked off. And you didn’t even know about it.
The mid-table Baleni Football Association clash between Dove United and Try Luckies kicked off at 7am on 14 April. The clumps of grass that cover Mpondoland’s usually straw green hills were turned golden under obtuse rays of morning sun breaking through the cloud cover.
Like all of the league’s Sunday matches, and despite the early kickoff, it started on time. Which is uncharacteristic of this part of the world.
But I was late. Late enough to miss the lead-up to the game’s first goal, a Dove United penalty within the first 10 minutes. But I was there to see it dispatched gracefully into the top left corner by the match’s senior statesman, a grizzled, grey-haired striker.
Butch and the Kid
The old man – gracious, intelligent and authentic – together with a nimble winger, an audaciously talented and reticent Neymaresque splash of blonde – were orchestrating a mesmeric start for Dove.
This was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, canary yellow jerseys blurred by their harmony.
The timing of Try Luckies’ centreback, wearing jersey No. 8, posed the only early resistance to the pair. Effective at closing spaces, the defender also possessed an angelic touch – taking throw-ins with toes more reminiscent of a ballerina than a footballer – and an eye for the long ball. But “Sundance” was up to the challenge, bucking the limits imposed by the pitch’s terrible condition. It was as if he was there for the purists I’d joined on the touchline. And there were many.
There was no white line marking the touchline. Instead, we stood on the depression where the hill’s long grass gave way to the unevenly mowed pitch, itself an undulating mosaic of ankle-high grass, dusty patches and shallow, gravelly pits. The punters lining the edge were mostly neutrals; sophists of Mpondo football (the kickoff was too early for most partisans). They were here for the entertainment, not the result.
It wasn’t long before their early wake-ups were rewarded.
In spite of their chic No. 8-wearing defender, the Try Luckies, in their cobalt blue kits, were eventually pinned deep in their own half. Sundance’s kinaesthesia was starting to make a mockery of the press. He weighted a delightful ball over the disciplined high line. “Butch” caught it flush out of midair. The volley sailed inches above the bar. The purists were satisfied. But hungry for more.
When the second goal arrived, it came as no surprise. Taking the press with him as he dropped deep, Butch pickpocketed two defenders. With both defenders committed, the right side of the box was left gaping. He obliged, tapping in a perfectly weighted through ball with the outside of his boot. Sundance – who else? – arrived to hammer home Dove’s second goal.
As the half drew to a close, the dominance established by the blonde and grey pair was stifling. Sundance pulled the strings in compact triangles. Dealing in short, intricate passes, he also manufactured lightning quick feints and stepovers. Butch continued to drop deep, linking intelligently with his midfield, pushing and pulling the erstwhile disciplined defensive line this way and that.
The game between United and Luckies was, for most of us, unheard of – like the countless others tucked away in Mpondoland every Sunday. It wasn’t on any television screen, nor will the other upcoming matches be televised. Their matches aren’t broadcast on any radio station and they don’t appear in a Google search. And therein lies part of the inescapable magic of the Baleni Football Association.
Each game – as fleeting as it is timeless – is immortal for those few souls lucky enough to be there, and nothing for the remaining 7.5 billion of us. For most, the Baleni Football Association is a loss we don’t even know we have suffered.
The league is a generational establishment in the communities in and around the village of Baleni. Most of the current players don’t even know when the league began (one estimates that it is more than 50 years old). But they know that their fathers, and sometimes even their grandfathers, played in the Baleni Football Association, often for the same teams they represent now.
And like their fathers, the current players aren’t playing for much. Each of the league’s 16 teams pays a R600 fee every season. The top three teams share what prize money is left after balls and equipment have been purchased and pitches maintained. The league champions also earn a spot in an annual Bizana tournament – a Champions League of sorts – where they are usually beaten by better-resourced urban teams.
While Baleni’s weekly dose of grit and grace remains unknown to most, it takes place among some infamy. A short distance up the dirt track that runs alongside the scraggly, anonymous pitch lies the incomplete Mtentu mega bridge. Community resistance has shut down the project. If you follow the road in the opposite direction, you will eventually reach the rust-coloured, titanium-rich dunes of Umgungundlovu, where sustained resistance against mining led to the North Gauteng High Court outlawing the mining of customary land without community consent.
Mpondoland’s football has not escaped its politics. When speaking after the match about possible mining in the area, Muzi Nduku, a 28-year-old Try Luckies mainstay, echoed the court’s ruling, almost to the word.
“What is more important, or essential, is consultation,” he said. “If you want to come here, you want to develop us, one of the things that is very important is to consult us. And one of the things that is very important when you want to develop people [is that] they must own the development.”
Like many other Baleni players (the roster of one of the league’s stronger teams, the Hungry Lions, is stacked with anti-mining activists), Nduku is itching for sustainable forms of development.
“For many years to come, like a hundred years to come, tourism will be there. But what about the mining? When you mine, it’s just a few years. The water will be acidic.”
Something in the air
Back on the field, with the second half underway, Nduku and his Try Luckies were living up to their name, resorting to long balls in a desperate attempt to keep play away from the midfield battle they were losing. But then, as is mandatory in any great game of football, something materialised out of nothing.
Nduku, playing a hybrid role between the Luckies’ embattled midfield and sluggish front line, pounced on the confusion caused by one long ball to bundle home a goal.
At 2-1 down, the Luckies’ energy piqued. A handful of substitutions and fresh legs followed. Was that the smell of a comeback in the air? Perhaps just the few pungent joints of Mpondo Gold being lit on the touchlines as more punters joined the crowd, smoking off last night’s hangover.
Floating comfortably between positions is nothing new for Nduku. In his early playing days, a coach instilled in him a parochial version of totaalvoetbal (total football).
“He used to tell me, when you are a player, you must be a utility player,” remembered the strongly built attacker.
Effortless positional interchange – made famous by Dutch teams in the 1970s – serves a different purpose on the uneven fields of Mpondoland. Here, it is one of the tactics employed to offset the endless moments of chance introduced into the game by the horrid pitch conditions.
There are others. Nduku insists that in spite of the pitch conditions, football remains about the basics: trapping, pushing and spacing. But most Baleni players also include an innately genius allowance for the “pitch effect” on the geometry of every pass they make and shot they take.
To appreciate these ungovernable moments, it’s useful to visit a moment in the second half of a match played later in the day between Cope FC and Congo United. A well-hit drive from the edge of the box was skidding towards the bottom corner of the Congo goal. The keeper, crouched low, had it covered. But at the last possible moment, the ball skipped off the imperfect surface and headed for a point high above him. There was no time to adjust. But he pivoted skyward, springing off his bent knees in a heartbeat to tip the ball over the crossbar. On any other football pitch, it would have been unimaginable.
Corruption on the sidelines
Butch and Sundance, so ascendant in the first half, were reduced to anonymity by Nduku’s hard running in the second. Tired of the havoc Nduku was wreaking on the edge of the box, a United defender hacked the Luckies’ talisman down cynically.
Up stepped No. 8, the elegant centreback who had featured in the game’s early stages. His free kick curled high and wide over a jumping wall, avoiding two of his offside teammates. The flip flop-wearing referee blew his whistle – goal! For the first time, the scores were level. But only for a moment. The linesman’s flag was raised for the interference of offside players (a ridiculous call).
Chaos ensued. An angry pitch invasion by Luckies supporters. Allegations of corruption (the linesman in question had once played for Dove United). But, after a long conference between the linesman, the referee and the league’s secretary, the goal stood.
The 2-2 stalemate lasted until the final 10 minutes. Dove United reclaimed their lead in characteristically sumptuous style when Butch finished a chipped cross, which he placed into the roof of the net with aplomb. But Luckies drew level one final time in the dying moments with, again, a characteristically coarse toe-poke to finish the greatest game you didn’t see at 3-3.
A good performance in a professional league is mostly a question of which side manages the fewest mistakes in a series of movements they have practised thousands of times over. The raking diagonal, the management of an offside line, the composure to maintain balance in front of goal.
But in the Baleni Football Association, the margins are far wider and the determinants of success less easy to predict. The players’ instincts here are not honed in training. They come from a less measurable and more raw place. On a pitch so quintessentially local, and in the vacuum left by statistical analysis and advertising boards, the league produces a truly universal type of football.
For the Luckies hero on the day, Nduka, a lot of it comes down to the environment in which the players grow up. It was not an issue for him, for instance, to line up barefoot against men when he made his Baleni debut at 13.
“For us, who grew up in rural areas, a 13-year boy is strong. Rather than the one who is sitting in the urban areas. Because of the environment and the situation,” he said.
In that environment and situation, the league has become an exalted possession of the surrounding communities. The nearest tarred road is more than an hour’s drive from the villages where Baleni players and fans live. But their connection to the beautiful game remains blood hot and personal. And it is on the messy pitches and sidelines of the Baleni Football Association that they play out this connection. Early on 14 April, it was in a 3-3 draw that had it all.
Nduka feels that a lack of rural services means children in the area often don’t get the chance to watch the footballers who they should be modelling themselves on.
“In rural areas, you see here, there is no electricity. Sometimes, it’s one of the things that is killing us,” he said. It’s a limitation that he overcame by reading football magazine Kick Off and weekly football newspaper Soccer Laduma, which his aunt had been bringing home since he was three years old – what he calls “a self-learning”.
The ardent Orlando Pirates supporter (“They play quick football, like, they share football”) spends his time off the pitch training children. Football – of course – but also drama and poetry. Strong role models feature heavily in his lessons, which he said range from the cost of patriarchal attitudes to the importance of self-worth.
The No. 3 he wears on his jersey is a credit to one of his personal on-the-pitch role models, Thembinkosi Lorch, the Pirates’ forward many tip to be among the nominees for Footballer of the Season.
“When I watch Thembinkosi Lorch play, I say, okay, when the situation is like this, he used to do like this,” said Nduka. And you can see it in his hard-running style.
The unsung league
For Nduka, football was a winter sport growing up. Summer mornings were for tending to the garden or readying his grandfather’s horse before school. Afternoons were for minding the family’s cattle and goats. He received his first pair of boots three years after his first match. The size eight hand-me-downs from his brother fitted him as well as a ball gown fits a toddler. He still wears only a size seven.
Baleni’s anonymity has slowly crushed a dream of playing professional football that began in worn-out size eights. As talent scouts habitually overlooked Mpondoland’s rugged pitches, so his best years passed him by.
He will play out what remains of his career as one of the unheralded stars of an unsung league in an ignored part of the country. But, zipping up his tracksuit before wandering into the crowd to wait for his second game later that day, he hoped aloud that the children he coaches will not be consigned to the same omission, that their great footballing moments will be beamed across the country.