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.