Township football in full, flamboyant swing

At the annual Maimane Alfred Phiri Games in Alexandra, tens of thousands of fans demand nothing less than pure township football. It’s a tough ask.

It is not often that the Madala men’s hostel in Alexandra is the best seat in the house. For a few weekends in Joburg every winter, however, when its decaying brick façade transforms into a colosseum, it becomes exactly that.

Every year, the Rotary Grounds – a rectangle of gravel in front of the hostel – plays host to the Maimane Alfred Phiri Games, or MAP Games, one of the most important celebrations of South African township football.

On 13 July, countless faces crammed up against Madala’s narrow windows, where laundry hung among huge plastic bags set up as screens against the rain. Together with the tens of thousands of people gathered on the bank at the foot of the hostel, they made up an electric cauldron craning for a view of the kick off of the MAP Games 2019 semifinals.

14 July 2019: The narrow windows of the Madala men’s hostel offer the best view of the pitch.

Angels in the dust

Two teams known for their free-flowing style and individual talent, D10 and Lebashe FC, squared off in the first of the semifinals. The crowd greeted the teams in a steady, guttural crescendo that lasted the rest of the day, and felt as though it radiated from the dusty pitch itself.

Of the tournament’s last four teams standing – Mambas 11 and Baroka FC contested the other semifinal – Lebashe was the only one to have avoided a penalty shoot-out thus far. The team enjoys some MAP Games pedigree, having finished third three times in the past decade. It is also one of the many talent factories competing at the tournament. Lebashe alumni include Bloemfontein Celtic midfield general Lantshene Phalane and former Polokwane City midfielder Sipho Jembula.

14 July 2019: Baroka FC take to the dusty field for the second semifinal of the annual Maimane Alfred Phiri Games at the Rotary Grounds in Alexandra, Johannesburg.

But what happens on the pitch is only part of MAP Games football. All teams are deeply invested in what happens off it as well. They employ a healthy dose of spiritual assistance in their preparations. No MAP game begins without doses of muthi (traditional medicine) being scattered in and around the goal mouths.

The tactical motif of the clash between D10 and Lebashe was soon established: right angles don’t work on a gravel pitch. Each player’s feet were encircled by a cloud of dust – a kind of inverted halo – as they instead made diagonal darts across the Rotary Grounds.

Midway through the first half, one of these runs brought the crowd to its feet, its collective baritone erupting into a frenetic tenor. Lebashe’s left winger took the ball out of the air near the halfway line and strode forward along the turf, a rare and puckish moment in a game dominated by aerial passes. On his way toward the opposite corner flag, he skinned three defenders. Each scalp amplified the machine-gun rhythm of the game’s loudspeaker commentary. One of his victims was left, quite literally, in the dust by a shibobo (nutmeg).

14 July 2019: A Lebashe player unleashes a shot during their first semifinal against D10.

Custodian of township legacy

These are the moments of panache that the crowd came to see. The moments that, taken together, make up the kaleidoscopic tapestry of township football’s distinct legacy.

Like the MAP Games’ countless other fans, Mhlengi Zungu, 36, was in the crowd “because of the styles. The kind of soccer that is played here is different. It isn’t that professional stuff. Players are given freedom.”

It’s a sentiment that rings true with the tournament’s founder, Maimane Phiri. South African football fans, said Phiri, “are missing kasi football in the NFD [National First Division] and PSL [Premier Soccer League]. We don’t get to see a player that is skilful doing his thing. It’s more financial, people don’t want to get relegated so it’s conservative football. But here it is free-flowing.”

14 July 2019: The spectators who fill the bank alongside the pitch at the Rotary Grounds can be hostile if players underperform.

For Phiri, the fans’ almost religious devotion to flair is about more than players humiliating their opposite numbers. More even than the appreciation of unique ability. It’s about history.

If the new buds of South African football bloomed in every feint taking place under Alex’s winter sun, its roots run deep and through countless famously skilful players, from Jomo Sono to Teenage Dladla and Ace Ntsoelengoe. These “were skilful players,” said Phiri. “They were free to express themselves. That’s what brought people to the stadiums before. That’s what the fans are missing. That’s why it is packed here.”

But outrageous skills are only one of the reasons that MAP games are better attended than most PSL matches. For one, there is no entry fee. Together with its home in the heart of Alex, this makes the MAP Games among the most accessible quality football going. “One obstacle to soccer is money. The unemployment rate is bitter. [But here] it has been brought to people,” explained Cecilia Mabushe, 38, who said that the games are a source of tremendous pride for many Alexandrians.

14 July 2019: A football fan dances on the sidelines, entertaining the crowds at halftime during the first semifinal of the MAP Games.

Alex, born and bred

Phiri is a product of this tradition and of the township in which his tournament is now keeping it alive. After learning to play football on the streets of Alex, he joined Alex United at a time when the club still played in the NFD and offered the township’s young talent hope of a future in football.

The prodigiously talented teenager soon signed for Jomo Cosmos before moving to Turkey, where he played for a number of clubs, including Samsunspor. Phiri had stints at Ajax Cape Town, Moroka Swallows and SuperSport United after returning to South Africa.

14 July 2019: MAP Games founder Maimane Phiri at the grounds in Alex where most of the games are played.

He was based in Turkey when he first got the MAP Games off the ground in 2001. Then, it was just called The Kickaround. The tournament started with four teams as a “way of giving back to the community of Alex” and in particular to create opportunities for the township’s small businesses. The huge crowds at the tournament have given rise to a booming street economy of braai meat, queen cakes, boiled eggs and giant ice-filled tubs of beers, ciders and cooldrinks.

MAP Games has since grown beyond even Phiri’s wildest imagination.

There is now a women’s football tournament, although at R30 000, the first prize is equivalent only to a bronze finish in the men’s draw. The men’s draw includes Under-13, Under-15, Under-17, Under-20, seniors – where Baroka eventually beat Lebashe 2-1 in the final to claim the first prize of R190 000 – and masters divisions. It will soon grow into a year-round calendar that includes netball tournaments, fun runs, golf days and sports days for learners with intellectual challenges from the Nokuthula Special School.

14 July 2019: Players fight for the ball during the first semifinal clash between D10 and Lebashe.

An ocean of talent

MAP Games’ gravel pitch and daunting crowd make for the perfect pressure under which football coal might be turned into diamonds. According to Phiri, “If you spot a player here who has a very good first touch and can take on players, when you see a player making those things easy, you must know he is a good player.”

The tournament’s history has borne this out. Bafana legend Siphiwe Tshabalala played at the MAP Games. So did Chiefs midfielder Lebogang Manyama, who, like Phiri, hails from Alex. Zakhele Siwela, South Africa’s assistant referee who officiated at the recent Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt, cut his teeth at MAP games. The list goes on. Phiri calls the tournament “an ocean of talent and anticipation”.

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Former Kaizer Chiefs and Mamelodi Sundowns legend Jabulani Mendu calls it something different. “I call it a World Cup, because this is where all things happen,” he said.

According to Mendu, who played in the masters section of the 2019 MAP Games, there is more to the tournament than raw skill. “Tactically, it’s like you’re watching a PSL game. But, like the fans are saying, you get more flair, you get more skill, you get more rhythm. It’s like they’re dancing. These boys, it’s like they’re dancing. Which is what we enjoy watching.”

But even for a lord of the MAP dance, the pressure to please one of South Africa’s most demanding and erudite football crowds never fades. “It’s scary, which is funny,” said Mendu. “This crowd is brutal. If you do what they don’t like, they want you out, they don’t hide it. I wish PSL teams could watch this crowd.”

14 July 2019: A halftime team huddle for D10.
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