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World Cup inspires lesbian footballers to play with pride

By Ben Wyatt, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • South Africa's only openly gay female team formed by women expelled from township sides
  • "Chosen Few" club based in what was formerly a notorious Johannesburg prison
  • Its players say they have been inspired by the World Cup being played in Africa
  • Organizers hope the team offers a safe haven for players who have suffered discrimination

Johannesburg, South Africa (CNN) -- The training pitch is a dusty patch of ground used by the local police force as a car park, and the club house is located in a former women's prison that held Winnie Mandela captive during the apartheid era.

Two of the team's players have been victims of "corrective" rapes -- Soccer City, this is not.

The facilities of the Johannesburg-based "Chosen Few" lesbian football club could not be further from those of the glamorous teams that play in the 2010 World Cup, but the first such tournament to be held in Africa has proved inspirational to the members of this local squad.

Ntombi "Khampi" Futhi used to play defense for her side, but after South Africa's "Bafana Bafana" national team kicked off the opening game of soccer's biggest event at the city's new 90,000-seater arena a few miles away, she has turned her focus to netting goals.

Video: World Cup inspires lesbian footballers

"I watched many, many World Cup games. I'm really enjoying it [and now] I want to be like Siphiwe Tshabalala [the scorer of South Africa's sensational opening goal of the event]," she told CNN.

"The way he ran through the ball and struck the shot... I want to be like him, I want those skills -- I love that goal so much!

"I asked that my team try me in the striking force in the last game we played, and I scored! I was so happy. My teammate crossed the ball, I trapped it and took a shot and that was my goal. I was shocked. I shouted: "I scored!" It encouraged me to be a striker because now I want more goals."

Chosen Few, South Africa's only openly gay female football team, was created in 2004 by the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) to fill a void for many of the passionate, soccer-loving women who attended their sessions but who had been expelled from their township teams because of their sexuality.

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Football is the only thing that kept me going when I was being hurt by what was happening at home and in my community
--Dikeledi Sibanda
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From their base in what was the notorious Old Fort Prison -- a jail that incarcerated Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Luthuli, as well as Nelson and Winnie Mandela before it was converted for other uses -- the group is hoping to use sport as a tool to address the issues of homophobia by playing other women's sides in the area.

Chosen Few's coach Dikeledi Sibanda, 27, told CNN that soccer had helped to give her strength.

"I love football, it is the only thing that kept me going when I was being hurt by what was happening at home and in my community. Soccer is my life," she said.

Organizers hope that the all-lesbian team offers a safe haven for the players who previously suffered discrimination for being openly gay -- the worst manifestation of this being the "corrective rape" of two of the squad members.

Phindi Malaza, program coordinator of FEW, said that South African society had not always proved an easy place to live for those involved with the team.

"One of our players, Tumi Mkhuma, was attacked in her township. She was out with her friends and these boys followed her. They beat her up until she was unconscious and then they raped her," Malaza said.

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"This happened in 2009 but the police have still been unable to find the guy. We're hoping they will keep pursuing the case as she stills lives in fear it will happen again."

Sibanda added: "They want to correct us, to show us what a man can do. They think that being a lesbian is immoral and uncultured. The corrective rapes are getting higher every day."

Pinkei Zulu, the 23-year-old captain of the side, said she had been affected by what had happened to her teammate.

"I don't walk at night now and I don't party unless it is a gay night. I walk hand-in-hand with my girlfriend, but we get called names. I just try to ignore them," she said.

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Though the past of the players -- who warm up by singing protests songs as they walk to training every Tuesday and Thursday -- may be troubled, the coming of the World Cup to South Africa means they have their thoughts firmly focused on the future.

"We played in a tournament recently where we lost in the final 3-2. But after watching the World Cup I wish my team would play like Germany, Argentina and Brazil because they play as a collective, not as individuals," Zulu said.

Sibanda added: "We are going to Germany to play in the Gay Games World Cup in July. In 2006 and 2008 we won bronze medals but in 2010 we will win gold. Bafana Bafana may not win the World Cup but we will win ours!"

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