Monday, June 28, 2010

Who Needs A Bucket List

One of the best things about being in the World Cup host country is that you don’t even have to be at the stadium to feel the vibe. On Tuesday we headed to Vilakazi street in Soweto to watch Bafana Bafana take on France at a restaurant called Sakhumzi. The atmosphere there was incredible, and as always, the company was great. There’s nothing quite like being in a crowd of South Africans off all races, singing their national anthem and “Shosholoza” while the home team sends the French side packing! The trash-talking was only made sweeter by the fact that we were sitting with a French journalist who interviewed us throughout the game.

For reasons that I hope you understand, it is difficult for me to discuss the World Cup right now. But, I was lucky enough to go to two more games last week, so I will share a little bit about it. On Wednesday, the US came up huge in the last seconds of the match against Algeria to secure a spot in the knockout round against Ghana. You probably didn't see me on TV, but if you saw the HUGE U.S. flag unfurl in the crowd, then you know exactly where I was sitting.

Originally, I didn’t have tickets to the game against Ghana, but someone talked me into hitching a ride to Rustenburg with the hopes of getting tickets off someone outside the stadium. As it turned out, a little angel-birdie whispered something into Kgosi Leruo’s ear, and he blessed me with a ticket to the game. His Majesty Kgosi Leruo T. Molotlegi is the 36th King of the Royal Bafokeng Nation. While I still have not met Kgosi, I look forward to being his guest in July and August while I’m working with the Royal Bafokeng Soccer program.

To call my ticket just a “ticket” is a little bit of an understatement. I never knew there was such a thing as “VVIP” (Very, Very Important Person?). I ended up sitting right at mid-field in the third row, right in front of Bill Clinton, Mick Jagger, Katie Couric and Wolf Blitzer. I’m not sure how Wolf Blitzer got on the list, but I appreciated his goal celebration, so I didn’t mind him being there. The game was amazing even though we came up short. I could spend a whole blog entry analyzing the players and coaching, but I’ll spare you that—the world has enough Monday morning quarterbacks. Now that the U.S. is out, I'm supporting Ghana all the way for two reasons. The obvious reason is that it would be awesome if an African nation took the trophy for the first time in history. Secondly, the further Ghana goes, the better the U.S. looks after losing to them

But enough about the World Cup—let’s talk about the smaller side of football. This week I finally got to start coaching out here in Johannesburg. My hosts have been the University of Johannesburg and the Witz University Football Club. Don’t get it confused, UJ and The University of the Witwatersrand are two completely separate institutions, with very different histories. I’m staying on the UJ campus with Adrian Carter, the Deputy Director of the Sports Department. Unfortunately, the UJ students are off on break, so I will have to wait until later in my stay to work with them.

On Thursday morning I was invited to the township of Alexandra (known as “Alex”) to run a clinic there. The local team, Black Diamonds F.C., is headed by Coach Tsheko, one of those rare men that seem to chase a vision, no matter what the obstacles. I arrived in Alex to find dozens of hungry players ranging in age from 8 to 23 years old, eager to be coached. Judging from the way they mobbed me when we broke out the equipment, I figured that they didn’t really believe me when I said we had enough balls for everyone. I’m sure you’ve all heard the stories about kids around the world playing soccer on dirt with “balls” made of bunched up plastic bags and no shoes, so I’ll spare you the drama. This was more like broken concrete with bits of glass—it was hard to swallow, but beautiful to watch the resilience of the kids. Using curriculum from our Jack London Youth Soccer League Academy, I ran a two-hour technical session, focusing on one-touch passing. I even learned how to say “wall” in Xhosa (I think it was Xhosa, but there are at least three languages spoken in Alex alone!).

Later that night I ran a technical training session on shielding and tackling for the Witz F.C. U10 team. Talk about feeling right at home! If I closed my eyes I could have been back in Oakland, CA at Astro Park with the Burners. I guess knuckleheads are knuckleheads, no matter what country you’re in. But seriously, the boys can play!

On Saturday I got to work with the SAFA Under 15 team. Using curriculum from the NSCAA National Diploma Course and the U.S. Soccer National Youth License, I ran a tactical attacking session with an emphasis on penetration. It is always interesting to work with players of different ages, at different developmental levels. For this session, I put on my mean-face and got down and dirty. That means getting called out when you mess up, push-ups when you let in goals, and wind sprints at the end of practice. And just to clarify, sprints are a reward, not a punishment!

Through all this, my heart has been back at home with my family, especially my Dad. Earlier this week my Uncle Kieth passed away after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just a few weeks ago. I will definitely miss and love him forever. I can’t imagine Thanksgiving dinner without him. His passing came too soon, and it is just another reminder to all of us to squeeze the juice out of life while you can. The “Bucket List” is an entertaining movie, but it's not a good strategy for finding happiness. In honor of my Uncle Keith, I ask all of you to do something you’ve always wanted to—not before you die, not when you retire, not when you have time, and not next year. Today, please. Buy that plane ticket, call that estranged relative, or donate that money. Remember, you cannot “save” time, you can only spend it.

Pura Vida

Monday, June 21, 2010

C'mon Koman!

I spent my first full week in Johannesburg in the care of Sonja, Moiketsi and their family. On Wednesday I got to tag along with Sonja, her brother, and her mother on an interesting trip to the township of Westbury. Sonja’s mother, Sophia Williams-de Bruyn, was a founding member of the South African Congress of Trade Unions, an organizer with the Coloured People’s Congress, and a veteran leader of the anti-apartheid struggle and women’s movement in South Africa. She is currently an ANC provincial legislator for the constituency that includes Westbury and the surrounding areas. Westbury, the coloured township where Steven Peinaar grew up, has a reputation for being one of the toughest corners of Johannesburg. We visited a property next to Peinaar’s old primary school that is currently owned by the Anglican diocese, but has fallen into disrepair. The site is being considered for various projects, including a home for children. As a youth programming aficionado, it was amazing to stand in the space and appreciate its potential. With the right energy (and money!) the project could change the lives of a lot of kids, while having a positive impact on the surrounding neighborhood.

After leaving Westbury, we stopped by the Roodepoort Parliament Constituency Office. Then they took me on a tour of Kathrada Park, which just may be the illest case of urban poverty I have ever witnessed up close. Trust me, there is nothing like this, ANYWHERE in the United States. Named after Ahmed “Kathy” Kathrada, this neighborhood is the product of RDP, the ANC’s Reconstruction and Development Programme. Among other things, RDP sought to relocate millions of South Africans to “proper” housing. Unfortunately, squatters and improvised housing still permeate Kathrada Park, literally springing up in the open spaces between the small government-built RDP homes. Mrs. Williams-de Bruyn explained the challenges of distributing the country’s limited resources when it is almost impossible to ensure that they will have the proper impact. For example, she pointed out that some families apply for government housing, only to turn around and sell their structures once they get them. What struck me most was the extreme differences between one plot of land and the next, despite being built at the same time to the same specifications. These differences were clearly the result of how well people took care of their property, and whether or not they took pride in, or ownership of what little they had. It reminded me of the never-ending debate about the roles of parent involvement versus funding in public education.

On Thursday I took a stroll around Parkview, the Johannesburg suburb where Sonja and Moiketsi live. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know I could spend a whole day in a used bookstore, especially if they know a good book when they see one!

That night I headed to Bulldogs Pub to watch the Mexico vs. France match on the big screen with a friend that I meet during my first week in Cape Town. Tim, a recent graduate of the University of Connecticut, studied abroad in South Africa, so he’s been a good person to roll with. I must say, I've thoroughly enjoyed watching the French team collapse under the weight of their own pride. Especially when they’re demise comes at the hands of CONCACAF and CONMEBOL teams! I never thought I would find myself cheering for Cuauhtémoc Blanco, but he's earned my respect after his stint in the MLS. After the game, I headed over to Circle Bar with a group of folks that were staying with Tim at a local hostel. There was nothing special about the bar, but it was great to be with folks from all corners of the world… England, Mexico, Honduras, Slovenia, South Africa… and Texas!

Friday was game time again, so I headed to Ellis Park Stadium to watch the second U.S. match, this time against Slovenia. My company was Xathisa Somana, Sonja’s cousin.What an amazing game! The low-point was sitting right in front of two American fans that must have been directly related to Barney Gumble. The high point was definitely Landon Donovan’s goal (top 5 of the tournament!), even if it was followed by a shower of beer, sprayed courtesy of the Gumble brothers. As a ref, coach or player, you’ll never catch me blaming the referee for the outcome of a match… but, c'mon Koman!!! Absolute robbery! With all due respect to Mansu Musa, I'm just not feeling Mali right now. It was still the most exciting match I’ve ever watched in person. Better than Brasil vs Cameroon at Stanford in the 1994 World Cup! Better than Barcelona vs Valencia in the Camp Nou!

On Saturday I got settled in on the University of Johannesburg campus, where I’ll be staying for the next two weeks. I met with some the coaches of Wits University F.C. and the South African Football Association (SAFA) and watched their U14/U15 teams play a few matches. I’m looking forward to training some of their teams while I’m here, and swapping knowledge with their coaches. On Sunday I had the privilege of observing the Dutch National team’s training session at Wits University. Of course I saw a couple things that I plan on stealing and bringing home to the budding stars of the Burners Football Club!

Monday, June 14, 2010

One Point Is Enough

As my second week in South Africa began, I could feel the excitement mounting on every corner and in every building. Two days before the first game there was a country-wide call to action. Everyone was asked to don their Bafana Bafana gear, grab their vuvuzela, and take to the streets at midday, when the sun was highest in the sky. That was almost a week ago, and the horns literally have not stopped sounding since then, with one exception (I’ll get to that later).

On the eve of kick-off day, I decided to check out Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. Just before I left California, a friend told me that if I only did one thing in Cape Town, this had to be it. That’s saying a lot, so I jumped a cab to see one of South Africa’s six World Heritage Sites. Like Robben Island, also a World Heritage Site, Kirstenbosch is something to be seen and experienced, not described. This is the kind of place where you spend the day when you’ve reached the end of your rope and you feel like you just might cut the next person that looks at you funny. Thankfully, I am nowhere near that point, but I still found the park to be among the most peaceful places I’ve visited in my life… a true woosah moment. I do wish I could have seen the park during South Africa’s spring or summer, when it’s a little warmer and more colorful. After more than an hour walking the endless crisscrossing paths, over bridges and along creeks, I found myself a nice quiet place to sit down with my book for a while before heading back to the city.

That night I had my first experience with Kurdish cuisine, which was not-surprisingly tasty. After dinner, I stepped out into the streets just in time to catch the Cape Town World Cup Kick-Off Parade. I can’t think of ever being a part of a bigger crowd in the streets… maybe the 2004 protest in New York City to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. The Cape Town Parade reminded me of what it felt like to be in the streets of Downtown Oakland on November 9, 2008, except on the scale of Carnival in Rio De Janeiro.

After enjoying the first days of the tournament on TV in Cape Town, I headed north to get a taste of the action in-person. At the newly rebuilt Cape Town International Airport I had a chance to use my two-word Japanese vocabulary when I spotted Yuichi Nishimura and the FIFA Referee Crew from the previous day’s match between France and Uruguay. They were visibly confused and surprised when I asked to take a picture with them, but I explained that I, too, was a referee, and yes, I did think they were cool.

I mentioned earlier in this post that there has been one break in the constant horn drone since Wednesday. That was when we were about to take off, and the flight attendant announced that the blowing of vuvuzelas was not permitted while on-board the airplane.

After a two-hour flight north to Johannesburg, I rented a car at the airport, and prepared for yet another first. This time, it was driving on the “wrong” side of the road and on the “wrong” side of the car. Fortunately, my first exposure to driving manual transmission was as a youngster, when Ayana (my first piano teacher) use to let me help her shift gears from the passenger seat. Actually, shifting with my left hand was surprisingly comfortable… navigating the South African “highway” system was a little more challenging. After a brief pit stop at the home of my (amazing) hosts in Johannesburg, I hit the road for the two-hour drive to Royal Bafokeng Stadium north of Rustenburg.

Rocking my “Mr. President” Obama t-shirt, and my U.S. Soccer Supporters Club “Founding Fan” Scarf, I got to my seat just as the players were taking the field. I am now officially a member of “Uncle Sam’s Army,” the seating section reserved for the die-hard U.S. fans. Honestly, I’ve been to enough Raiders games and sat close enough to The Black Hole to know that Uncle Sam’s Army is relatively tame as far as “die-hards” go. Still, there was no place I would have rather sat, and I enjoyed our amateur hooliganism—especially the vulgar songs about the Queen of England. As for the game, Clint Dempsey’s goal wasn’t the prettiest, but our boys played well and I’ll take the point against England any day. I won’t harp on the logistical nightmares of getting home after the game. I’ll just say that two hours after the final whistle blew, I had only made it 6 kilometers from the stadium.

On Sunday, my first proper day in Johannesburg, Sonja and Moiketsi (my hosts) showed me around some of the city. We had a tasty outdoor lunch at Tasha’s, at Melrose Arch. Hundreds of international tourists and locals gathered on the plaza to enjoy their meals while watching the afternoon matches on a massive jumbotron screen. In between the two matches, a musical group from Rwanda gave a concert that included everything from traditional music to Hip Hop

We wrapped up the weekend with a Sunday evening barbecue at the home of Moiketsi and Sonja’s friends. As always, Germany kicked off their tournament by absolutely mollywopping their opponent. The game was entertaining. The food was delicious. The company was excellent. I slept like a rock.

Monday, June 7, 2010

El Hajj Begins

It's been 3 months since my last post to this blog, but let the sabbatical continue! My time back home in between trips was well-spent, visiting friends and family and taking care of some business. But, as you can imagine, part of me was always counting the days until this trip. In reality, I've been counting the days for the last few years, ever since I pledged to make it to South Africa for the World Cup. And now, here I am, and the first week has been sweet!

Of course, I saved packing until the very last minute, but that's just how I roll. It wasn't too hard since all my worldly possessions have been confined to my dad's guest bedroom for the last 3 months (except for storage). As for traveling, I'm getting kinda good at this, so the three flights it took to reach Cape Town couldn't phase me.

After about 23 hours of flying, a few more sleeping in airports, and a 9-hour time change, I arrived at Cape Town Airport. Call me sentimental, but it was pretty special to step off the plane onto the tarmac and breathe African air for the first time in my life. After getting to the apartment on the Waterfront where I'm staying, I went out on my first exploration walk. My first mission was to buy a camera. Sadly, I'm gonna pull this trip off without an iPhone since my fairy godmother reclaimed hers after my last trip. After grabbing a camera and a few groceries, I headed back to the apartment and passed out for the rest of the day/night.


One of the first things that jumped out at me as I walked around downtown Cape Town the next day was the incredible amount of construction that the city is undergoing. I had heard stories that "things weren't ready," but it's a whole different story to see it in person. It seems like every other sidewalk is being repaved or replanted with trees. It reminds me of Oakland right after the Reinvestment Act was passed. Every morning I would pass a group of 20 workers milling about a different hole in the ground (19 of them holding a sign, and 1 actually digging). I will say that the workers here look a little more busy than at home, but it does make me wonder/worry how much money is being spent in the name of beautification.

At one point I spotted a huge crowd of people a few blocks away. Assuming it was some kind of fan fest event, I headed over to check it out. Actually, I ended up walking into a thousand-person-strong pro-Palestine / anti-Israel rally. The rally was in response to the Israel Defense Force's intervention / attack on the aid boat headed to Gaza last week.

Back home in the Bay Area, there is no shortage of people who sympathize with the Palestinian cause. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if they start selling keffiyehs at The Gap. Since 2003, when I first marched against the then-pending U.S. invasion of Iraq, I have been a part of countless rallies sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. As an American media consumer, I've also watched endless hours of footage of Arabs and Muslims across the world marching for Palestine and/or against Israel. Watching this rally in person was distinctly different from the experiences I was used to. Unlike the rallies at home, this one was full of real live Arabs and Muslims, not pesto-and-sprout eating Californians. On the other hand, the event felt so much safer in person than it would have looked after CNN or Fox News got its hands on it.

In 1999 I spent a summer with a Palestinian-American roommate who had never seen his home, and thought he never would, due to the circumstances on the ground. Since then, I've come to see the system in Israel as an apartheid state. It was powerful to see the same direct parallels being drawn by South Africans, as they called on their government to oppose the Israeli action. Don't get me wrong: I did not "join" the march, I was a spectator. While I'm sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle, and agreed with much of what I saw and heard, I can't associate myself with some of the ideas and signs that were a part of the march (for example, see below).

The march culminated in front of the Parliament building, where the crowd massed and cheered under the shadow of a massive statue of Louis Botha... ironic?

After the march, I headed around the corner, and stumbled across the Slave Lodge Museum. The entrance was only a couple bucks, so I decided to check it out. It ended up being so interesting that I stayed for a couple hours, went and had lunch, then came back for a few more hours. The Museum is housed in the building where the first slaves were brought to the Cape from across Africa and the around the world. There was an exhibit on the history slavery on the Cape, an exhibit on the life of Nelson Mandela, as well as a collection of Mandela political cartoons by Zapiro.

On Friday morning I boarded a ferry to visit the infamous Robben Island. There's not much I want to tell about the Alcatraz of South Africa—it's really something to be experienced in person. One highlight for me was being toured around the island by Sparks, a.k.a #5683. In 1983, at age 17, Sparks was arrested on charges of terrorism for being a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military arm of the African National Congress. He spent 7 years on Robben Island with no shoes, in a cell shared by 60 political prisoners. Before leaving the island, I stopped by the gift shop and bought a copy of the Robert Sobukwe's biography, which I'm looking forward to reading this week.

Another highlight of my visit to Robben Island was connecting with a handful of Americans. After we got off the boat, we headed to a pub to catch the U.S. put the smack down on Australia in a pre-cup friendly match. As the day turned into evening, our group kept growing until we were almost ten-strong. For the finale we headed to the Waiting Room, a club / lounge on Long Street, Cape Town's main drags. It was good time all-around, especially since Miss H let me rock the turntables for little bit!