South Africa needs Mia Hamm

From CLE to Cape Town

Heather O'Keeffe

I, like many American girls, began playing soccer at a very young age. From U-6 to U-18 I was always playing soccer—for my high school, a club team or just for fun in the backyard. And when I wasn’t playing soccer it was some other sport—basketball, tennis, anything. I consider myself to be quite sporty, but I would say that most American girls at some point in their childhood or adolescence played a sport. Whether that be t-ball in the park or AAU basketball, young girls throughout America have a plethora of opportunities to play an organized sport.

In South Africa, that is not the case at all. This didn’t overly surprise me, as I’ve traveled to other countries where girls just don’t play sports, but still—if I was raised in South Africa, I would go insane. Thankfully, great women like Billie Jean King and Mia Hamm fought for a place for females in sports and for respect as athletes. These women have always been my heroes and, from what I have so far experienced in Cape Town, Alex Morgan and Maya Moore need to take a trip to South Africa.

Playing soccer in South Africa is so fun. The country is soccer crazy, and whenever I take my soccer ball out in public, I make friends really easily.

I have played beach soccer with locals twice. One of the times was with young boys who didn’t care that I was a female. The other time was with males aged 13 to 26 and they were shocked when I asked to play with them. Who was this foreign girl who wanted to play soccer? Some of the guys were overly nice in passing me the ball and I felt it was a big deal any time I successfully played the ball. One guy even asked me if I played professionally. I scoffed; I haven’t played on a team in a couple years and I’ve never remotely been near a professional level.

But it could be possible that if I played for a club in South Africa, I could play on a professional team. No wonder you never hear of South Africa at the Women’s World Cup: they’ve never qualified and only made one Olympic competition.

Through experiences playing for the University of Cape Town (UCT) women’s soccer team, I’ve been able to learn the most about soccer in South Africa.

The first day of trials I was pretty nervous, but then we began to play and my nerves disappeared. While I was nowhere near the form I would like to be in, I could at least pass on target, let alone pass with both feet. The level of play was really astonishing. For many girls the enthusiasm was there and they were keen to play, but the fundamentals were seriously lacking: balls ricocheted off feet at awkward angles, the goalkeeper didn’t know you could catch the ball.

About 60 girls tried out for two teams, compare this to over 300 guys for three teams! Of the 25 girls who made the first team, one is Swedish, four are Norwegian and eight are American. Us foreigners bring a really strong level of play to the team: Three Americans play DIII back home and one Norwegian used to play at a junior national level. In fact, I reckon the starting 11 could all be study abroad students.

The South Africans on the first team are also good players, but not in nearly the quantity one would expect at a school of 26,000 students. UCT is the size of a state school back in the U.S., so if UCT was in America the team would be 25 exceptionally talented girls who train several hours, six days a week. Practices here are less intense than high school soccer. We practice twice a week, and once the season begins, we will have games twice a week.

We’ve already played two friendlies against a professional team in Cape Town. We beat them pretty handedly. The other teams had good footwork but little structure: They could make a move, but then made a bad pass. Our coach’s goal is for us to go up a division to the top women’s division, which would then mean UCT was at a professional level.

Back home I’ve complained that the men’s team had nicer jerseys than the girls, but here the disparity is even greater. The men’s UCT team practices every day and flies around the country to play other universities. The women’s team never flies; they only play locally. That’s so different from CWRU and other universities back home, where both teams travel all the time and have crazy practice schedules.

In the U.S., walking onto any university team is a big deal, much less at a school of 26,000. Hopefully as South Africa continues to develop women’s sports, it will become a societal norm. Maybe in the next few years a superb female South African athlete will emerge and take hold of the nation, like Mia Hamm did in the 1990s, showing that not only can girls play, but they can play pretty damn well.

Sports are a huge form of empowerment and expression. I cannot imagine the person I would be if my parents didn’t sign me up for soccer, yet here hundreds of thousands of young girls will never play a pickup game of street soccer or represent their school while sprinting down the field.

There is a trend in aiding developing nations to invest in women and girls, to provide them with microloans and ensure they get an education. Getting girls involved in sports should be a valued part of this investment. Maybe one day the guys on the beach will think I’m an average player, and UCT women’s team will be cutthroat competitive and will feed into a globally respected national team program.

Heather O’Keeffe is a second year biomedical engineering and sports medicine student attending the University of Cape Town for one year. She longs for international access to Spotify and is in love with the awesome USD to South African Rand exchange rate.