Mophela Primary School represented South Africa at the 2017 Danone Nations Cup World Final soccer tournament in New York last month and, although the team finished 27th out of the 32 teams competing – it was a life-changing experience for the boys involved, and for one player in particular, Njabulo Ndlovu. The trip to the USA showed that he can hold his head high and compete with distinction against the top players of his generation.
Njabulo Ndlovu rose to the challenge and made the most of the opportunity he was given. He proved to be versatile and able to play in any position, and was not intimidated by players who were physically bigger and stronger than him, some of whom played for the youth academies of Europe’s most famous clubs. Germany was represented by the youth team from RB Leipzig FC and ended in 5th position and the under-12 team from Atletico Madrid represented Spain finishing in 9th position. The tournament was won by Mexico.
New York and the Danone Nations Cup World Finals were on a different planet for Njabulo. Mophelo Primary School is in the tiny KwaZulu-Natal rural village of Hammarsdale, and Njabulo lives in an orphanage.
He moved into the Lily of the Valley children’s home two years ago after living, along with 17 others, in a single-room dwelling, all surviving on his grandmother’s social welfare pension.
At Lily of the Valley he shares a room with Sanele Dlamini who attends Gabigabi High School and prefers choir to soccer. Njabulo looks up to Sanele as a big brother and Sanele has been very influential, always encouraging him, and helping him with his schoolwork.
At the orphanage he gets three square meals a day, and he has learned to speak English – which was an advantage at the tournament in New York. He has also come into contact with international visitors who volunteer to work there.
Going to the USA was exciting, and he knew something of what to expect, having been prepared by Laura Everett, an American volunteer who helped him with his English and taught him some life skills.
“I’d like to return to the USA one day and I would like to play soccer in Europe,” Njabulo said. “The USA changed my way of thinking. I’m from a very rural area, but now I know I can go out and improve myself and come back and improve the village I live in. I know I’ll need to work hard and do well at school to do that.”
Njabulo’s team mates struggled to adapt to the food they were given in New York. They are used to a diet of mealie meal porridge, and they didn’t get that there. At the orphanage they grow their own vegetables and Njabulo is used to a varied diet, so he loved the meals they received.
Njabulo has been identified by the scouts from AmaZulu FC and can’t wait for next year when he will be with them on a more permanent basis. He is working on his English, hoping they will send him to Glenwood Boys’ High next year.
One day he would like to become a teacher. “I want to come back to the village and make a major impact in changing the environment there to improve the entire village,” he said.
For Njabulo the highlights of going to the world finals were playing on great surfaces and meeting players from other countries. With his stylish play, and ability to speak English, he was a popular tourist.
Jetlag and adjusting to a different time zone affected the team badly, he said. “In the first days we had no energy, so we made a slow start.”
The big Indonesian team, with their direct passing game and movement off the ball were their toughest opponents, Njabulo said, while England – who they beat twice – were the friendliest team, and the nicest to hang out with.
The best team to watch, according to Njabulo, was Spain. “I loved the way they would pass the ball to each other and how well they communicated on the field,” he said. But then what else can you expect from Atletico Madrid’s development team.
Team captain, Kwanda Zungu, played a crucial role, Njabulo said. “He was the funniest one, and he was always positive. When we were feeling low after losing, he managed to motivate the team, he had us laughing and back on track again, ready for the next match.