South Africa welcomed us with open arms. Literally.
In rural South Africa, gathering with women from Africa, Europe, and the U.S. who shared my passion for the game of soccer, I received more hugs and posed for more photos in four days than in the rest of my life put together. Sixteen teams of women, all of us over 50 years old, participated in this inaugural event — the Grannies International Football Tournament (GIFT). It was 13 years in the making, built on dreams and a friendship that spans continents.
The organizer, Beka Ntsanwisi — a renowned community activist and cancer survivor — founded the original team of soccer-playing 40- to 80-year-old grandmothers some 15 years ago, to improve their health. At first the locals ridiculed them and told them they belonged at home caring for their grandchildren. But what did they know? A team doctor recorded indisputable results from the regular exercise: improved mobility, lowered blood pressure and cholesterol levels. The team camaraderie helped these resilient women deal with the challenges of daily life. Plus, they were having a blast.
In 2010, when South Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup, these soccer-playing grandmothers became a popular human-interest story. The international spotlight landed the team an invitation to travel and join a tournament in Massachusetts — from yours truly.
Like the Grannies, I found soccer later in life. In my mid-40s, I went from mom-on-the-sidelines to chasing the ball myself. It’s so much fun that I forget I’m exercising, and my Lexington, Massachusetts teammates are among my best friends.
Beka replied to my invitation without hesitation: “We will come, my sister.” And despite the obstacles of securing passports, visas, money and flights, miracles ensued. In July 2010, 15 Grannies streamed through the Boston airport. They wowed us with their dancing on the sidelines of the field and their zest for life. And during that visit, Beka announced, “Before I die, I want to host a Grannies World Cup.”
Now, fast forward to 2023. Beka’s first team has inspired over 200 women’s teams across South Africa and more in neighboring countries. And in March, Beka’s dream of hosting a Grannies international tournament was finally and joyfully fulfilled.
On opening day, the red carpet was rolled out in the town of Nkowankowa. The stadium stands brimmed with fans. These grandmothers were celebrated now, with pageantry of song and dance, and welcoming speeches from dignitaries. Locals cheered as a parade of drum majorettes, a marching band, and teams of women sang in vibrant-colored traditional dress.
I was one of 50 women in our 50s, 60s and 70s who piled off a bus and joined the procession behind a fluttering U.S. flag. We slapped high-fives, fist bumped, and handed smaller flags to kids with angelic faces, easing into our new role as sports ambassadors.
When the ball finally found the net, for either team, music resounded and fans rose to their feet dancing.
And as for the opening game of the tournament: The hometown Soccer Grannies would take on my Massachusetts team — the same one who had hosted them in 2010. I couldn’t imagine a more fitting reunion for our sister teams.
Behind our respective goalies, we lined up in the stadium tunnel to be escorted onto the pitch, holding hands with a 12-year-old girls’ team from South Africa. I dared to hope we all might inspire them to keep playing when they became grandmothers. Hands went to our hearts as the anthems of the U.S. and then South Africa blared from the stadium speakers, and time froze for an instant as I panned the faces in the stands.
Playing my first team sport ever in my mid-40s, I had never played in front of five people; now 20 years later — at age 64 — I was poised to perform for more than 5,000. Once the starting whistle blew, though, the faces faded as I dashed after the ball. There was, after all, a soccer game to be played.
When the ball finally found the net, for either team, music resounded and fans rose to their feet dancing. The cheering was so loud, I couldn’t hear subs calling our names. Over the following days, teams battled under the blazing sun. When the oldest American player, 79-year-old Rita Wilkie, scored on a penalty kick, the announcer shared her name and age, and when she scored again, the crowd chanted, “Ri-ta, Ri-ta!” in warm recognition.
The competition was intense as France, Zambia, three South African teams, and all three U.S. teams entered the quarterfinals on the fourth and final day, and several games ended in penalty shootouts. My team would settle for second place, but the U.S. Breakers, also from Massachusetts, hoisted the 3-foot-tall trophy in the air as champagne showered the jubilant team. The goalie promptly presented the trophy to Beka and the host Grannies team, without whom this event would never have taken place. We know Beka’s the true champion.
As we drove away, heading again to the airport and back across the globe, I waved through the bus window and marveled at the power of sport to bridge connections across the world. For me, the Grannies tournament was an extraordinary gift, an experience I will never forget. For all of us, we cling to our memories of being united with our soccer sisters. I’m already looking forward to the next one.