The Evening Standard UK
In a country where being a teenage girl can be dangerous, Zimbabwe’s girl footballers kick back against teen pregnancy.
At first, the coach refused to play her. But one day, during a friendly match, the team ran out of substitutes.
With no other options, Trish was brought off the bench, and scored a brace, one of them the winner, earning the respect of both her coach and her young male teammates.
She continued to play and develop her skills in midfield. But it wasn’t until she moved with her family to the city of Bulawayo that her fortunes changed.
“I was on my way home from school when I saw girls training. I asked how I could join and they invited me for trials,” says Trish, now 17, recalling the first time she saw a full squad of girls playing football.
Trish had stumbled upon Street Set, a football club in Bulawayo that recruits girls from the city’s teeming suburbs and equips them not only with skills in dribbling and passing but also with the tools to navigate adolescence.
This dusty pitch is our home: Zimbabwe’s girl footballers kick back against teen pregnancy
Zimbabwe is not an easy place to be a teenage girl, with high rates of pregnancy, enforced early marriage and drug abuse, particularly among girls who drop out of school. The Covid pandemic made things worse, with lockdowns shutting girls out of the relatively safe space of the classroom.
In Street Set, Trish had found an alternative to Bulawayo’s dangerous streets and the attention of older men. “By the following weekend I was playing my first game,” she recalls. “I started as a substitute until I made it to the starting lineup a few weeks later.”
On a sunny, breezy afternoon in the suburb of Tshabalala, girls in a variety of school uniforms sit under a tree by a dry, pitted football pitch and plan their training session.
In the absence of changing rooms, they then struggle to change under their clothes into the club strip of blue shorts and yellow shirts and lace up their boots of varying vintage and colour.
During daily training sessions they practice ball control, passing accuracy and dribbling.
For inspiration, some of them watch the Premier League and the Women’s Super League at home on pay-per-view television or catch highlights on their phones.
500 girls trained as Zimbabwe’s girl footballers kick back against teen pregnancy
Trish, an attacking midfielder, is inspired by the lightning speed and skills of Senegalese forward Sadio Mané. In just a year, she has risen through the ranks of her squad to become captain.
“Perhaps it’s because I have leadership qualities,” she says, laughing and cracking jokes in Ndebele, her mother tongue.
Street Set has trained more than 500 girls and competed in Zimbabwe’s premier league up to 2018 when the club had to pull out due to lack of funding.
“Few corporates fund girls’ soccer, especially compared to their male counterparts,” Mangena says. “Some of our girls go on to play for bigger clubs in the country and the national team as well clubs in South Africa.”
The club now has two teams that compete in Division One and Division Two, survives on funds that are donated randomly, whenever they have a match, by well-wishers in the neighbourhood.
Hope of playing professional football: Zimbabwe’s girl footballers kick back
A big draw for the players is the chance to win scholarships to attend some of Bulawayo’s best schools.
“The ones which are serious about their football always knock on our door when they want players so the majority of our girls, when they are shining, are offered scholarships to the schools that produce the soccer legends, says Mangena.
One of them is 14-year-old Dineo Njayala, a talented winger who joined Street Set in April. With the help of the club she secured a scholarship that is allowing her to continue her secondary education.
“My mum is self-employed and she struggles to pay for my school fees. Now I am playing for my school and for my club. We are one family. We are sisters and we look after each other.”