Ever since Bafana Bafana made a quick exit from the World Cup, the talk of South Africa has been about how to build a soccer power.
The stock answer is this: We've got to develop our boys from the time they're young.
What people don't talk about are the nation's girls.
While South Africa is universally hailed for overcoming apartheid, it is still a conservative country where women athletes can face social stigma — and, in extreme cases, much worse. Eudy Simelane, a former captain of the women's national soccer team, was gang-raped and killed in 2008 by men believed to have targeted her because she was a prominent lesbian.
Usually, the pressure is more subtle, as Sesebo Mokhopa found when a troupe of little girls came to her last year for coaching. They were passionate about the game, said Mokhopa, who is something of a hero in Katlehong because she plays for the women's national team.
But after a few practices, parents told her they didn't like the way the girls were scuffing their school shoes working on passing and dribbling drills, and they couldn't afford shoes just for playing. The girls were 5- and 6-year-olds, just the age Mokhopa thinks they should begin training if they're going to excel as they get older. All dropped out of her impromptu soccer academy.
Parents, though, find a way to get soccer shoes for boys, or are less concerned about their school shoes, said Mokhopa, a 25-year-old midfielder who has been watching World Cup games avidly and is thrilled her nation is hosting so much world-class talent.
Simphiwe Dludlu, the 22-year-old captain of the national women's squad, said there has been some progress for female athletes, but not enough.
Soccer has taken Dludlu from the cramped streets of another Johannesburg township, Alexandra, to the University of Pretoria on a partial scholarship. She graduates this year with a degree in sports science, and dreams of playing professionally overseas and one day starting her own soccer school for girls.
"Opportunities are there for us, but they are still limited," she said. "We are growing, but it's too slow for my liking."
Most players in South Africa's struggling women's league earn nothing, and can be left choosing between buying soccer shoes or the healthy food an athlete needs, Dludlu said.
"It's amazing how women in South Africa have still got the passion to play," Dludlu said.
Augustine Makalakalane, coach of the national women's team known as Banyana Banyana, "our girls," said: "It's about time that women's football is given parity."
The South African Football Association, which oversees both the men's and women's teams, and Makalakalane say salaries are confidential. Makalakalane says that while he has no complaints about his SAFA pay, he doesn't make the $1 million-plus Carlos Alberto Parreira reportedly got for coaching the national men's team, Bafana Bafana, "our boys."
Makalakalane also says the stipends his players get for attending camps and playing games don't match what Bafana players get.
Makalakalane, a former Bafana star, hesitates to call himself a feminist. But he is committed to ensuring any team he is involved with, whether its players are girls or boys, gets a chance to succeed.
The World Cup has meant opportunity for Nthabiseng Ramatsokotla, the 23-year-old captain of a top league women's team in Alexandra.
Ramatsokotla has been working as a coordinator with Football for Hope, part of a campaign by FIFA, soccer's governing body, to ensure young Africans benefit from the continent's first World Cup. Alexandra has one of what FIFA says will be 20 Football for Hope community centers across Africa, where soccer coaching sessions are combined with lessons about life skills, including avoiding AIDS.
Ramatsokotla said it was a struggle at first to persuade young women to come to the Alexandra center because they "were thinking that soccer is only for boys." Her work, she said, has helped her develop administrative skills she hopes to use to start her own team and soccer academy one day.
Ramatsokotla grew up playing street soccer with her seven brothers. She said her father at first resisted his only daughter's soccer ambitions, but she persisted. At 14, she joined a program for girls started in 1998 by a local coach, Samuel Modiba.
Modiba runs the Alexandra Ladies Football Club on donations and a large portion of his earnings as a coach in Johannesburg schools. Parents at one of the schools where he works in a wealthier neighborhood donate shoes and other equipment for the Alexandra Ladies.
"I was born here," Modiba said. "When I would be in the neighborhood, I would see a lot of girls with talent. But they had no showcase for their talent."
The field behind a high school where his players practice with battered balls is equal parts dry grass and patches of dirt. But Modiba has put together a team that plays in South Africa's top women's league, and produced 17-year-old Jabulile Mazibuko, a member of the national team that has qualified for the under-17 girls World Cup.
Mazibuko dreams of playing professionally in Europe. For now, though, she's watching her heroes in the World Cup.
"There's a few techniques I'm learning from them as a defender," she said. "I wish I could play like them."
Source: The Associated Press.