Mozambican Football Player Playing Hard, For Life
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It was so hard to separate her from her twin brother. Grita and Elias were always together; they played together and fought together. When her brother started playing football Grita tagged along, barefoot, running after the ball down the dirt road. The boys in her neighbourhood – Alto Mãe, in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique – sometimes made fun of her.
"The tomboy has come out to play," they would say. "Go home and cook, little man." But, in the end, they had to let her play because Grita's brothers were the ones who owned the ball.
The owner of the ball always plays. Even if he plays badly, he plays. That's the way it is. So I took advantage of the situation.
Grita played well; she had skill and drive. She liked football, but she also liked dolls. At school, though, she didn't do as well, and her parents scolded her. Grita was born in Maputo in 1987, the fourth of five sons and daughters of a couple from the north of the country. They struggled, but they were able to raise their kids in the midst of a civil war. Every day, her mother went out to sell "bulk clothes": she bought big bundles of used clothing imported from rich countries, sorted it, folded it and sold it piece by piece in the market. Her mother sold a lot of clothes like this until she got sick and had to quit; her father, meanwhile, had a job at the Agricultural Ministry.
Even the neighbours call my dad Machel…
Samora Machel was the first leader of FRELIMO, the guerrilla movement that drove the Portuguese out of Mozambique: a man with a reputation for inflexibility.
…because he is very serious and demanding. But if he weren't, God only knows where I would be today.
Because my neighbourhood is very tough. A lot of bad stuff goes down here.
It took Grita a while to figure that out, though. When she was little, she says, she played, went to school, and everything seemed peaceful. But when she became a teenager, she realized what she and her friends didn't have and how hard it was going to be to get it.
We want lots of things. The guys want money to invite girls out. They see a car they like, a phone, and they don't have it, so some of them start stealing. And we girls see shoes, hair extensions, a dress... you see them and you can't buy them, so many decide to sell their bodies to get them. In my neighbourhood that's very common.
Did any of your neighbours suggest that you do that?
A woman never says to another woman "Let's sell our bodies." Women don't talk about these things. They do things that get your attention and, if you aren't very determined, you'll end up doing what they do. It's men who say to other men, "Let's get together and steal" or whatever.
Were you ever tempted?
We all suffer from temptation. But no, not really.
How were you able to avoid it? People were always talking to me about the rules, about proper conduct. My parents at home, the pastor at church… And the coach of my football team was also an educator, a sort of father. He told us to take care of ourselves, to resist the temptation to take the wrong path. And I always did what he said.
When Grita was 11, a young coach named Wali saw her playing football at school and invited her to join his team. The Rock7 was the best women's football team in the city, and Grita was excited. Her teammates were ten years older than her, but they accepted her affectionately: she was the baby of the Rock7.
Her father, though, objected: he said that a girl shouldn't do this sort of thing. Her mother, on the other hand, thought that if Grita was into football, she wouldn't be tempted by worse things. She supported her from the beginning and managed to get her father's permission to play on the team. Three times a week, the coach called at her house and they walked five kilometres to the football field. And on Sundays there were games, the highlight of the week. Grita would put on her green-and-white jersey with the drawing from the campaign to use condoms: for the past several years, the Rock7 have had the support of the Associação Moçambicana para Desenvolvimento da Família and the Coalizão Nacional de Organizações de Mulheres, to spread information about HIV and AIDS, reproductive health, and gender questions. At half time, the players often sit down and talk to the other team or the spectators about these issues. They do this in other places as well: schools, houses, city parks.
We are not just football players. We are also activists. At first they didn't take us very seriously, but now they have to because we have shown them that we do what we do well. So they have to listen to us.
In 1999, when she joined the team, Grita won her first championship. Even today, after so many triumphs, that championship game, which the Rock7 won 1–0, is the one she remembers most. Until then, she was afraid to go out on the field, afraid to make mistakes. From that day on, though, she knew that she was good and that she wanted to take football seriously.
Why did you want to play a sport dominated by men?
First off, because I want to, because I like it. But also to show that women can do what men do, that we are equal to them. But for that to happen, women need better conditions. For instance, the FIFA often sends money for women's football, but the Mozambique League uses it for the men.
Today Grita is the captain of her team. She can play many different positions: defence, midfield or offence. Sometimes, in the middle of a game, her coach puts her in another position to confuse the other team. Grita is not tall but she is very athletic. She runs fast, controls the ball well and kicks with both feet.
We show everybody that women can play too, just like men. Is there a feminine way to play football? No, it's the same. When we play, people think that it is men playing. But the people who think that because we play football we are less feminine, or that we are tomboys, they just don't know what they are talking about. We are women. We have women's bodies. We have hips, we have breasts, we are real women.
On the Rock7 there are women between the ages of 15 and 28. Some are high school students, others are mothers with children.
Do you hit players on the other team?
If necessary… But you have to know how to hit, so they don't see you and call a foul. It's just part of the game. Hitting is also part of life. And when it comes to hitting, you can't hit gently. You have to mean it.
It's Sunday afternoon. The Rock7 are playing on a crushed stone field in a poor section of Maputo. Their play is well organized, guided by clear ideas. The coach, standing on the touchline, shouts more and more instructions. In the stands there are one or two hundred people – mostly boys – who chat, yell, dance.
Doesn't it bother you that the coach of your women's team is a man?
That's how it is. They say that men are better at instructing women. Women often lose their way because of men. Anyway, these are men and they show us the good things in life.
And don't you think that women should coach too?
I do, but women are not taken seriously. No one thinks that women are capable of doing anything; they don't trust them. In our team, we have an old joke: "Women don't think, they remember." We players have shown that we have the ability; they just don't take us seriously.
In 2004, Grita made it into the national team and now she is one of its stars. Her team-mates have included Maria Mutola, the great Mozambican athlete and Olympic champion in the 800 metres, who later gave up football to work full-time at track & field. At first, these international competitions were a major responsibility:
I felt that I was responsible for my flag, for my whole country. I was moved when I heard the national anthem. But now I play for the sake of the game. I mean, even the League's heads don't take it that seriously. Before, they would promise you some money – one hundred dollars, say – and they would give it to you. Now they promise you one hundred and they give you sixty. And if you ask them what happened, they say you are undisciplined. That's sad. If they don't give you the money, it ends up in someone's pocket, and I don't want to play for them to make money. They are afraid of men, but they think that a woman will be passive and won't say anything… They are starting to realize how wrong they are.
Thanks to the national team, Grita has visited places she never would have imagined: Zambia, Algeria, France. But she doesn't have a salary, a steady income. She still lives at home with her father, and her boyfriend has to treat her when they go out. For five years, Grita has been dating a student at the police academy. She says she wants to marry him –"He is a godsend, he's perfect for me"– but not yet.
I still have a lot I want to do. I want to study medicine, build a life for myself. I don't want to get married before finishing my studies.
Next year, Grita will try to get into medical school, and she is convinced she can. For now, though, football is still the most important thing in her life: this match, this Sunday, now coming to an end. The Rock7 won by a huge difference, she scored six or seven goals, and the night is falling over Maputo with a burst of colour on the horizon. The girls are changing in the stands. They put on their women's clothes, they take care of their make-up. Wali and his assistant give them a sandwich and fifteen meticais – about sixty cents – to pay for the bus ride home. Grita looks tired and quite happy.
Football is great and I don't want to stop playing, but what matters to me most is studying. I have to do something with my life. I want to get married — of course I do — but if my husband leaves me one day I don't want to be left with nothing. That's why I can't get married until I have studied. I want to have something all my own, to have a life of my own.
Sport is part of young people's lives, yet many cultures still prevent girls and young women from getting involved. Grita's story shows how determined and persistent young women can challenge even football's male-dominated culture. As a result of their drive, more and more girls and young women are playing the game.
Sport has begun to appear on the agenda of many countries and international bodies. Regularly engaging in sports promotes physical fitness, builds self-esteem and confidence and reduces stress and depression. With its universal values of fitness, fair play, teamwork and the pursuit of excellence, sport can improve the lives of individuals and communities. Sport can also create safe spaces, especially for girls.
Sport can give young people the sense that they are part of a community beyond their families and help them connect with their peers and with adults. Sport can expose young people to new ideas and opportunities, and provide access to resources, opportunities and aspirations on their road to adulthood.
Sport and physical activity were first recognized as a human right in UNESCO's 1978 International Charter of Physical Education and Sport, a concept supported by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989. In 2004 the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 58/53 which invited Governments, the United Nations, the specialized agencies, where appropriate, and sport-related institutions to work collectively so that sport and physical education could present opportunities for solidarity and cooperation in order to promote a culture of peace and social and gender equality, and to advocate dialogue and harmony. The General Assembly proclaimed the year 2005 as the International Year of Sport and Physical Education. The Year aimed to facilitate knowledge sharing, raise awareness and create the right conditions for sport-based human development programmes.
Even though boys and girls have equal rights to its benefits, sport is still dominated by young men.4 For instance in Peru 46 per cent and in Bangladesh 47 per cent of males 18-34 are engaged in sports or recreational activities, compared with only 28 and 14 per cent of women in the same age group.
In Nairobi, Kenya, the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) is a large-scale, community-based, mixed-sex organisation in one of the city's largest and poorest slums. For over two decades MYSA has found new ways to promote sports, environmental improvement and community development, and to convey information about sexual and reproductive health. In lieu of fees, members participate in regular clean-up projects in the places where they live. MYSA's girls' programme addresses traditional gender stereotypes and promotes positive interactions between boys and girls. Before each game, players and supporters hear talks about HIV and AIDS, unwanted pregnancy, and other reproductive health issues.
MYSA builds self-esteem and directs the skills of young people into improving themselves and their communities. Its programmes have changed the lives of thousands of boys and girls. Young people who have been involved in MYSA have become youth leaders and role models for others. Some have gone on to professional sports, graduated from universities, and become local leaders.
Girls and women getting into sport open up restrictive gender stereotypes, but sport also gives girls access to the public sphere. It provides avenues to information and learning, and to new and valuable life skills. It allows girls to form friendships and expand their social networks, and to enjoy freedom of expression and movement. Through sport girls may benefit from mentoring by trusted adults. Confronted with girls in a new role, boys learn about their strengths, capabilities and contributions, which may help reshape their thinking about what girls should and shouldn't do.7 Sport may help transform the ways girls see themselves and how their families, peers and communities see them.
"I want to [play football], because I like it. But also to show that women can do what men do, that we are equal to them. But for that to happen, women need better conditions".