There are many townships in and around the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. Those townships are where the poorest in the city were pushed to live during apartheid, keeping the wealthy in the expensive properties within the limits of South Africa’s biggest city. However, while Johannesburg has FNB Stadium, the largest in Africa and the one affectionately known as Soccer City, for the residents of Alexandra, Joburg’s most notorious township, Soccer City is the land on which they reside. It’s the subject of a 2011 documentary with the same name, which details the lives of 6 residents who show how the game of soccer has changed the dynamics of life within the township for the better.
Alex, or Gomorrah as it’s known by the locals, is one of the poorest urban areas in South Africa. The township that has over 20,000 shacks within its tiny 2 square mile border. Over 180,000 people live in Alex, 99.4% of them Black, and most are living well below the poverty line. Still, it hasn’t stopped the people from doing what they can to uplift and bring prosperity to their community. In 2000, the country launched the Alexandra Renewal Project, and while it has caused some clashes between opportunistic companies and the residents, it has succeeded in building new safer places to live and play for the community and building the tourism industry to create new jobs.
From that hope, and despite all the obstacles, the documentary focuses in on 6 people whose lives have forever been impacted by soccer. From a young woman whose chance to make the South African women’s national team was derailed when an intruder hit her in the head with a brick, almost killing her, to one of the first pro soccer players in the country who played during apartheid, to a young man trying to use his skills and a scholarship to make it out of Alex to a better life, this documentary will give you a glimpse of how soccer can change a community.
The streets of Alex are calmer and safer as the renewal projects built safe places to play. Crime has reduced and the streets are vibrant throughout the day. They have a stadium where their amateur team, Alexandra United FC, places in the SAFA Second Division, a regional league on the third tier of South Africa’s soccer pyramid. In the documentary, you are able to witness it as another local team, Bidvest Wits, a team in South Africa’s top flight where one of Alexandra’s brightest talents plays, takes on a team from Portugal at the stadium in front of a boisterous crowd.
Soccer City is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video, and it’s a recommended look at the plight that South Africans face. But, it’s a problem not unique to South Africa. In areas around the world that people refer to as the slums, ghettos, barrios, and favelas, soccer has been the combination of faith and hope that people who live there hang onto in order to make it through the day. They have a heightened sense of community, and soccer is the glue that holds that community together. Alexandra has formed its own soccer city, and it’s bringing hope and opportunity to a township that needed to work extremely hard to build the community that can prosper together. There’s still work to be done, but they have faith that soccer can be at the center of that growth.
For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.