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Writer Juliet Torome (J. Torome)
Writer Juliet Torome (J. Torome)

Juliet Torome

African women are getting a kick out of soccer Add to ...

When I was born, 25 years ago, it would have been rare - even taboo - to find African women discussing soccer. But that's what my girlfriends and I now do.

I grew up in Kenya, where my compatriots - both men and women - zealously follow the English Premier League, perhaps because of our colonial connection to Britain. I'm a Chelsea fan, and so are most of my girlfriends. We rarely disagree. But as the World Cup moved into its quarter-final and semi-final matches, we started to argue. Although we don't exchange blows like men, we are just as passionate, especially since the world's most famous tournament is being played on our continent. Sometimes, it seems we spend more time arguing about soccer than we do chatting about men.

At the tournament's start, we couldn't agree on which team to support. Should we pick a country representing Africa - Algeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria or South Africa? We were torn between the natural instinct to root for our brothers and the urge to side with the likes of Argentina, Brazil, Italy or Germany, teams that seemed more likely to win. Initially, I supported France, because I like Chelsea's Nicolas Anelka - although, as an African woman, I also could not resist the dream of chanting with joy those times when an African team won.

That we, young African women, are talking more about the sport is a sign of hope for women's soccer on the continent. A sportswriter with a Kenyan daily recently told me that, this time, women seem to be interested in learning the rules of the game and knowing more about players and their positions. They want to enjoy the game, rather than sit in the company of their male relatives, oblivious to what's happening on the pitch.

But will the 2010 World Cup bring African women more than just fodder for gossip? Holding the 1994 World Cup in the United States increased soccer's popularity there and led to the creation of Major League Soccer in 1996. And, in 1999, the U.S. won its second women's World Cup, leading to a women's soccer revolution in the country. The label "soccer mom" has become common, as more American women enroll their children in soccer camps. Will holding the world's greatest single sporting event in Africa spark similar interest for the continent's women?

I was encouraged recently to read about Simphiwe Dludlu, who has become one of South Africa's top sports personalities. Ms. Dludlu, who has been playing since she was 10, currently plies her trade at Tuks FC in Pretoria, where she is also studying at university. In 2006, she got her first call to join the Banyana Banyana, the South African women's team. Her success clearly shows that African women soccer players can reach great heights. But for most young African women, it's not that simple.

Although women's soccer in Africa is as old as the republics themselves (the first teams appeared in West Africa in 1960), soccer on the continent is still a man's sport. Most African wives dread the season. They become soccer widows as their husbands flock to bars. Every day at dinner, mothers are left alone to answer when children ask whether daddy still lives in the house.

Even wives of men who watch the game at home have got other issues to deal with. For instance, a former workmate has a husband who is a diehard Manchester United fan. Every season, he breaks at least one piece of furniture when his team loses. She has changed her furniture at least twice since she got married four years ago.

Given male dominance in African politics and soccer, any chance to improve the state of the sport that might arise from the 2010 World Cup will most likely benefit men. That's because in most African countries, even men's national teams are struggling. Male youth soccer camps and leagues are either non-existent or mediocre.

Until brought to a level where they can compete in international tournaments beyond Africa, women's soccer teams will continue to struggle. And considering the rampant corruption that plagues our continent, it might take a century to see male soccer teams managed and funded sufficiently.

American women improved their game because soccer moms do not heavily rely on husbands to finance their daughters' training. As more African women continue to be educated, I dream of the day when we, too, will be able to decide for ourselves.

I was encouraged to learn that, in South Africa, women of my mother's generation have been playing in a soccer league for five years. After the World Cup, Vakhegula Vakhegula (the Grannies), a team of women between 50 and 84 years old, will travel to the U.S. to play in the Veterans Cup. Our boys may not have won in South Africa, but maybe the Grannies can show how it's done.

Juliet Torome is a writer and documentary filmmaker.

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