I started playing football almost 20 years ago, when I was 45. After years on the sidelines cheering on my daughters, I wanted to give it a try. I ran three times a week, but I had never played team sports. I found other Massachusetts moms who were eager to play, and soon I was running after the ball. I liked it.
Even though I didn’t know it at the time, a group of women from Limpopo, South Africa, was going through a similar experience. In 2007, grandmothers met for a daily exercise program. A few boys were playing football on the same pitch. When the ball rolled towards one of the grandmothers, she started it. The women laughed as the ball moved away from the boys. The organizer of the exercise group, Beka, approached the teenager and said, “Show grandmothers how to kick the ball. The next day the women asked to play again.
The sight of older women playing soccer caused a stir in the city. “Grandmothers don’t play football,” they were told. “You belong to the house to take care of the grandchildren. But these women in their 50s to 80s wouldn’t be discouraged. Known as the Soccer Grannies, they did more than score goals: play lowered their blood pressure and improved their cholesterol levels. The pain decreased and their range of motion increased. Football has no age limit.
Our lives crossed in 2010, when South Africa hosted the World Cup, and a Soccer Grannies video was shared with my team. Inspired by the fact that we could also play in our 70s and 80s, we forged a transatlantic connection. Our teams played the good game together on both sides of the Atlantic. I knew we were going to connect on the soccer field, but it was the way these women expressed their life experiences through song and dance that captured my heart.
Ten years after the first grandmother kicked that ball, Beka had 84 grandmother’s teams in all provinces of South Africa. More than that, Beka had big dreams for 2020: she would host a tournament for older teams around the world. I rallied my teammates and we marked our calendars to join the tournament.
But the pandemic abruptly interrupted Beka’s plan. In Massachusetts, I felt scared and helpless as COVID spread around the world.
In September 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, the South African president addressed the people: “Celebrate our South African heritage. Join the Jerusalema dance challenge which is spreading across the world. Show off our good music, good dancing and good moves. A 25-year-old Limpopo musician and gospel singer created the Jerusalema sensation that has catapulted to the top of the music charts across Africa and much of Europe. Doctors, nuns and these Soccer Grannies stood up to take on the President’s challenge.
Twenty grandmothers dressed in traditional Tsonga clothing paraded across a grassy field in Limpopo. The first beats of the music began.
Eight thousand miles away, I leaned forward and enlarged the YouTube video to fill my screen. Twenty grandmothers dressed in traditional Tsonga clothing paraded across a grassy field in Limpopo. The first beats of the music began. The grandmothers darted towards the sky, swinging their arms. I smiled as I recognized the faces of my friends from my sister team. From my office in Massachusetts, I watched the dance with delight.
The grandmothers moved their hips, sending the tight folds of their skirts to their knees in a frantic vibration. Adorned with beaded headbands, necklaces and bracelets, they all wore masks and stood six feet apart as they danced.
The video closed as the players circled around, heads bowed in prayer, and the grannies left the field as the music faded. I enjoyed being able to see my friends during the pandemic, if only through a screen.
As the pandemic spread, I imagined how scared the grannies must have been, no doubt reminding me of the devastating HIV / AIDS epidemic. I have read articles about food insecurity and violence against women on the rise in South Africa. Beka delivered bags of maize flour to local villages, then she applied.
Finally, something I could do.
I was back on the football field in Massachusetts, reunited with my friends after months of confinement. The Jerusalema howled through a portable stereo system. One player filmed and another showed us the steps. We wiggled our hips, dragged left and right, stepped forward, tapped a toe, and changed direction. We danced to send a message of love and support.
We have incorporated photos of the Grannies into our video to tell the story of our friendship with our sister football team in South Africa. Tears welled up as I watched. I wondered if others would feel the love, so I posted it on YouTube and passed the link on to Beka. She texted me later today:
Watching our sister team dance, through their efforts and courage, I realize that if we come together with love, we can change the world and be one. Football brings us together.
I was breathing easier knowing that we would come out of this pandemic and dance together again, on the soccer field.
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