Streetball is not just another homeless world cup film, it is the best of its genre. Despite being 10 years old, this documentary is fresh, vibrant, and still relevant in its reflection of the world today. Streetball also stands out as one of the few homeless world cup (HWC) films where the soccer is as engaging as the stories of the people.
In the documentary, first-time Director Demetrius Wren explores the backgrounds and struggles of a team in Cape Town, South Africa as they prepare to compete in HWC 2008 in Melbourne. The team rosters 8 men in their 20s-30s whose lives have centered on crime and drugs.
The team is administered by OASIS, and a requirement of the program is that the players must remain clean and off the streets. The captain and best striker, Martin Africa, is unable to travel because he has never had identity papers. Without Martin, the team has some early success but then struggles in Melbourne.
Another unusual feature of this film is that you get to see 2 homeless world cups, HWC 2008 and then HWC 2009 in Milan. Wren and his now wife Christina Ghubril Wren returned to Cape Town 6 and 12 months after the 2008 tournament to follow up with the players and reveal longer term outcomes. The result is a film that is honest about issues with the HWC program, and maybe that is why it doesn’t get mentioned by street soccer organizations.
The film points out the many issues of poverty in the local area. OASIS founder Clifford Martinus grew up in the nearby township of Cape Flats, which was created under Apartheid. You will never forget the sight of former inmates of Polismoor Prison explaining the meanings of their tattos.
When I think about it, among the over 300 movies I have reviewed, Streetball may be the first football film that was created by a Black director. There is one powerfully honest but subtle scene that addresses race. In Melbourne, the team is invited to speak at a local school.
Student: What is Australia like compared to South Africa?
Coach: It’s the first time that we’ve been treated – sorry to say that – by white people, the way you treat us. … It’s different cultures with different languages and different beliefs. That’s why they call us the Rainbow Nation, you see. But it is still a process for us to be one. It’s also for you, very important to know these things.”
This is mentioned more explicitly in other HWC films, but one of the reasons the HWC is important to the players: they are treated as normal human beings. They get respect. They walk the plazas in their team attire and get positive reactions.
“Even who you are or what you are or what you were before – people doesn’t look at you in that way, man. People look at you as a human being, as a sportsman, trying to get together with your life. And I would never go back to my back streets. I would rather take the front streets where all the people walk and say, “Hi. Here I am.”– player Martin Africa
What happened to the players
When the filmmakers follow up with the players 6 months later, they realize there is little support for the men post-tournament. Half the team returns to the streets. However, 3 players become mentors/coaches for the following year’s team for HWC 2009.
In the film, Thapelo Kalpens wants to go to university, however his test scores aren’t high enough at the time. Happily, he does get accepted in the followup period. In researching, I found that he attended a New York film festival screening of the movie, and he has a LinkedIn page that indicates he graduated.
But even at the end of the film, they report that Martin Africa continued to go in and out of drug use and street crime. An article said that during filming, a local told the filmmakers that if not for Martin’s street cred, they would have stolen all of the crew’s equipment. It’s better to remember Martin for his last words after HWC 2009, and for the joy that football brings to all:
“For me, football showed me everything, man. How to take a loss. How to take a win. … If you play football, you don’t think of other things. You only think of that ball. And for me, it’s just splendid. There’s no words how to describe it, man. Really, there’s no words.”– player Martin Africa
Streetball excels at capturing the flow of the game. The 5v5 format in a fenced-in pitch is a really fast and fun game to watch; if you haven’t been, you should go. Years ago, I went to the San Francisco Street Soccer USA tournament to watch my son’s team; they ended up getting eliminated by a team from Stanford Mens Soccer, who went on to lose to a team of former MLS players.
Social change in South Africa
I am always curious to figure out how or why a film was made. Streetball appears to have started with a former charity in Florida called From Us with Love (FUWL), but it is no longer in operation. At the end of the film, FUWL makes an appeal for funds, but otherwise the film is not commercially oriented.
If you wish to support the non-profit organizations in Cape Town area that fight to bring social change through sports, consider these two:
- Oasis continues to send an annual HWC team, has additional programs, and supports SAHSS, the South African Homeless Street Soccer League
- Hoops 4 Hope has a Soccer 4 Hope program that focuses on girls
9 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 9