A weak winter sun hangs low in the afternoon sky as Andrew Kloppers Road, in Khomasdal, becomes choked with traffic. The day’s commuters are heading home from work in the city or the outlying suburbs. Taxi drivers toot their horns at potential passengers perched on the side of the road—a quick hand flick from a woman has three drivers jostling for space on the pavement fighting for her fare.
Behind her, the Khomas Grove Mall, the kitsch-coloured commercial heart of Funky Town, one of Windhoek’s most eccentric, multiracial, and multiethnic neighbourhoods, swallows and spews out shoppers into the late afternoon. It is getting colder by the half-hour, and with the city in the firm grips of winter the streets are not a good place to be caught when the night finally descends.
Everyone has somewhere to be, and they try to go there quickly.
Across the mall, though, a daily ritual is about to unfold.
The dusty square patch between Andrew Kloppers Road and the Magdalena Stoffels Bridge, usually surrounded by hawkers selling sweets, gum, vetkoek, and oily hotdogs is now empty but for the occasional pedestrian crossing it on their way home. A stiff breeze whips the loose dust into a small sand devil which dances across its length—it clears the debris of cool drink cans, empty chips packets, and sweet wrappers.
When the wind dies down the patch is left immaculate.
The stage is set. The patch sends out a low frequency call to the surrounding neighbourhood that goes unanswered for a while.
Five minutes pass, ten minutes pass. Fifteen.
Then, in the distance, the first pilgrims of the day arrive.
They are tapping a ragged soccer ball between the five of them—they take turns showing off tricks, dribbling a short distance ahead of each other before passing the ball to the next player. As they near the patch one of them kicks the ball high into the air. It climbs to its zenith before plummeting and landing in the middle of the patch. Three of them rush towards the ball, pushing and jostling each other. The other two peel off the pack and head to opposite ends of the dusty quad. They look for big rocks or broken pieces of concrete and use them to create temporary goalposts about a metre wide. After they complete the task they join the rest of the group and take their turns showing off their skills.
The patch has become a pitch.
Soon, other football devotees make their way to this patch of dirt. In the space of twenty minutes about thirteen players have been magnetically drawn to this patch of dirt by the thrill of competition and meeting up with friends.
They are bedecked in all manner of clothing and footwear. Some feet are adorned in the newest Nike Mercurial Vapors, untried, untested, straight out of the box. Others wear faded and torn Converse All Stars. One player sports Barcelona colours, another is in a Chicago Bulls vest. A familiar brand in unfamiliar territory. An angry red bull flits across the ground, nimbly dribbling a soccer ball.
Old, torn t-shirts, faded by too many washes or the latest football kit—it does not matter. The clothes do not make the player here, the ball does. In this club where membership is determined by agility, skill, and the desire to win everyone is welcome.
The ball is kicked around for a few minutes. Then, as if heeding some unspoken command, the players meet in the centre of the pitch.
Here, far away from FIFA’s ostentatious and corrupt halls, far away from the pomp and circumstance of television broadcasts, press conferences, commercials, and endorsement deals an unspoken code of football is rigorously followed: two captains emerge, either by volunteering or by their alpha statuses; they quickly choose their teams of five or six players, depending on the size of the pitch and the number of players available.
The best players are snapped up in a 45-second transfer window. No rumours, no headlines. The captains point or call a name and the selected player peels off to join their respective side. Those who are not chosen form a third team and hover by the edge of the pitch, waiting for their turn to play.
Late stragglers will have to join the queue and hope there is enough light left in the darkening sky to play if their turn comes around.
The two teams spread out across the pitch. Everyone chooses where they want to play—the only caveat is there must be at least one defender or roaming goalkeeper to stop the opposing team from scoring wantonly. The goalkeeping rules are pretty simple, too, designed for a system of street football which ensures quick elimination for teams which are too heavy in their attacks and weak in defence. Using one’s hands is not permitted, only feet can be used to keep the ball from crossing the goal-line. This is, after all, football.
The game starts.
Flashes of dribbling magic; hoofed, desperate clearances which send the ball looping into the surrounding bush (everyone takes care not kick the ball into traffic—the fun will come to a standstill if the ball is popped by a car tyre); a slow recovery; more dribbling and howls of derision when someone is nutmegged. Frustrated calls for a ball to be passed; an insidious through-ball which snakes its way through midfielders and slips past defenders; a series of furious, dusty, last ditch tackles and a goal is scored.
The goalscorer and his team jog back to their half, fist-pounding and high-fiving each other.
First blood has been drawn; it is time for the conceding team to get serious. Going down means joining the back of the queue. It means being a spectator in a sport made for participation.
The losing team retrieves the ball and collects in a loose huddle. Someone must defend; the midfield should be crowded and bossed; the speedster of the team needs to earn his keep on the wings.
Everyone nods their agreement with the assigned roles.
“Sharp, gents. Kom ons gaan, let’s go!” the captain says.
The team jogs back onto the pitch as the ball is played from the back. They are one goal down, if they concede another they will be relegated to the sidelines where boredom and banter are the only things they can engage in.
The winning team shapes up as their opponents storm forward. Nobody wants to be swept to the sidelines, nobody wants to lose.
This is knockout kasie* football: if you lose, you lose the right to play.
i am | the beautiful, cruel game.
i am | the slow, bounce of fate.
i am | the street rules.