Comeback Kid

Photo by Pete Muller.

In the shadows of a windowless room, 17-year-old Nancy Majola sits between the television and a space heater. The heater’s few functioning coils glow a promising orange in an affront to their minimal effect. Like most homes in Alexandra Township, this battered, concrete structure has no heat, its interior colder than the brisk air outside. Despite the chill, Nancy dons mesh soccer shorts that form part of her year-round attire. She peers out from under a Bafana Bafana cap to watch Japanese players challenge Cameroon in a World Cup match underway a few miles from here, in central Johannesburg. As she studies the moves of the world’s greatest players, her frigid surroundings are evidently far from mind.

For Nancy, the bustling streets of Alexandra Township form a sprawling pitch upon which she builds her dreams. “One day I will play for Banyana Banyana,” she says, referring to South Africa’s national female team. Her eyes dart frequently to the TV where the ongoing match seduces her attention. “I am a good player and a confident person,” she says with benevolent certainty. The assertion of her talent is confirmed by her nickname, “Maradona,” in honor of legendary Argentine midfielder Diego Maradona. “The people here call me that because of my style, the way I handle my ball,” she explains with a reticent smile. “Someday I hope to play exactly as he played.”

Enroute to a local field, Nancy and two friends kick a soccer ball between tin shacks that now define this overcrowded township. Loitering men with questionable intentions break from dice games to watch them pass. Despite evident discomfort, the girls remain focused on the ball, cracking jokes and moving at a clip. “I am not afraid in Alex,” Nancy says in a defiant tone. “I am used to it.” The men leering in her direction are likely among the 75 percent of unemployed people here. Such staggering rates contribute to the prevalence of crime and substance abuse. “A lot of people are being hurt by the street life, from drugs and alcohol,” Nancy remarks.

She believes that soccer gives her discipline, structure and keeps negative influences at bay. When she is not in school, soccer and its related activities consume a surprising amount of her time. “I just play soccer always,” she says. “If I’m not playing in organized matches, I’m playing in the street. If I cannot play in the street, I go for roadwork [jogging] to raise my fitness.” Her dedication paid off this year when she became the highest goal scorer in the “Under 17” league. “I just keep gaining practice and experience,” she says. “I’ll work as hard as I have to be the best.”

– Written by Pete Muller.

This piece appeared initially in The New York Times.

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