03-25-23 US women group photo at Lafe LaClaire Hotel in Johannesburg
Three teams of women in their 50s, 60s, and 70s traveled to South Africa for a four-day tournament at the end of March. Sixteen teams from across Africa, Europe, and the U.S. competed in this first-ever Grannies International Football Tournament in the Limpopo province. The Beka Ntsanwisi Foundation and the Vakhegula Vakhegula Football Club, affectionately known as the Soccer Grannies, hosted this inaugural celebration of older women from around the world who love the beautiful game.
The festivities commenced with a parade of drum majorettes, a marching band, and teams in their traditional attire carrying the flags of their country. The townsfolk of Nkowankowa lined the streets cheering, slapping high-fives, and posing for photos with the players. Upon entering the stadium, we passed by tents of dignitaries and squads of dancers awaiting their turn to perform at the opening ceremony.
The three Boston teams, sports ambassadors for a few days, were members of the Breakers, the Ground Breakers, and the Lexpressas teams. Many of the Massachusetts women regularly compete in the USASA Soccer Fest tournament, the Eastern Mass Women’s Soccer League (EMWSL), and the Teamworks over-50 league. They can also be spotted at various all-women and co-ed scrimmages across the greater Boston area.
These women have been grateful for their connections to local soccer organizations as players, mothers of players, coaches, refs, and volunteers. Some of the women—youngsters in their 50s—benefited from participating in the MA Youth Soccer leagues as girls. Mary Alice Vallarino of Arlington, Massachusetts started playing in kindergarten, was involved in the MA Youth Soccer program, and now enjoys EMWSL. Kim Brookes of Malden coaches for Malden Youth Soccer, attended their courses, and often refers to their online resources. However, many of us older women started playing as adults; there were no girls soccer teams at our high schools or colleges in those pre-Title IX days. No matter how long we have been playing as individuals, we will keep chasing that ball as long as we can.
The South African Soccer Grannies also found their way to the pitch as adults. At first, they encountered ridicule from townsfolk who said they should be at home watching their grandchildren. They were told it was undignified to be wearing shorts. As we fellow soccer players can attest, the Soccer Grannies were having way too much fun with their new passion to be dissuaded. The camaraderie of their teammates helps these strong and resilient women triumph over life’s challenges.
The U.S. connection with the Soccer Grannies dates to 2010. South Africa was hosting the World Cup and the international spotlight focused on these grandmothers as an endearing human interest story. Our players in Massachusetts saw one of those news clips and were inspired by these women—even older than us—enjoying the game we loved. We invited the team to visit the U.S. to participate in the 2010 USASA Veterans Cup tournament. A sequence of last-minute miracles brought nineteen South Africans streaming through Logan Airport. The women captured our hearts with their zest for life and their singing and dancing on the sidelines of the soccer field. A contingent of players visited South Africa in 2011 and our relationship as sister soccer teams has thrived ever since.
You can imagine the thrill when the first game of this 2023 Grannies International Football Tournament was slated as the host South Africa Vakhegula Vakhegula team versus the U.S. Lexpressas—a magical reunion. Our teams lined up in the tunnel as if it were the FIFA World Cup. Once on the field, we put our hands on our hearts as the national anthems of the U.S. and then South Africa blared through the speakers. We assumed our positions on the field. The ref blew the whistle and the game started. Sunny temps in the mid 80s felt hot for us from the northern hemisphere, but we were glad to be running again after those long travel days. The U.S. scored two quick goals. The roar of the crowd was so loud that it was impossible to hear subs calling our names. The final score was a 3-1 win for the U.S. We thanked the Soccer Grannies for the fun game with hugs.
Three days of tournament games ensued. The atmosphere in the stands was jubilant with fans leaping to their feet to dance at every goal. Rita Wilkas, the oldest U.S. player at 79, scored on a penalty kick and again in her next game when she was perfectly positioned in the box. The crowd chanted, “Ri-ta! Ri-ta!” The semifinals found two South African teams competing with two U.S. teams.
Several of the games ending with penalty shootouts. At the conclusion, the U.S. Breakers hoisted the three-foot tall trophy at the closing ceremonies in a shower of champagne. The Breakers’ goalie presented the trophy to the host Vakhegula Vakhegula team—without whom this memorable tournament would never have occurred.
Above: Rita Wilkas with tournament organizer
The U.S. players will never forget how South Africa welcomed us with open arms. Literally. Countless embraces with team members and fans, the joyful music and singing, the TV interviews, and playing in front of a packed stadium are memories we will treasure. It was an honor to be part of this history-making tournament. We will long remember this opportunity to celebrate, empower, and honor older women, to focus on improved health, and to share the camaraderie across race and culture through sport.
The author of this article will also have a book coming out on May 10 called "Soccer Grannies: The South African Women Who Inspire the World."
"I’m a 64-year-old debut author and recreational soccer player. I am donating all book proceeds to the Beka Ntsanwisi Foundation to help keep elderly women safe in South Africa." Jean Duffy, player and author stated.
Jean continues, "Soccer Grannies" tells the story of a team of 40 to 80-year-old women in rural South Africa who defy social convention to play soccer for the health benefits and companionship it provides. Their strength and resiliency help them face life’s challenges with dignity, humor, and hope. They teach the rest of us that age, gender, and expectations cannot define an athlete."
If you are a Boston-area mother or grandmother not yet playing soccer, come join us! Email SoccerGrannies@gmail.com and we will gladly provide information about the options for joining the Breakers and the Lexpressas on the field for fun and fitness.
Keep educating and inspiring us, Jean, Bay State Breakers, and "Soccer Grannies"!
Updated: 6:31 PM EDT Mar 23, 2023
When the 2010 FIFA Men’s World Cup took place in South Africa, the international media spotlighted local stories, including one about a group of older women in the rural region of Limpopo who had started to play soccer.
It was an initiative led by “Mama Beka” Ntsan’wisi, whose own bout with colon cancer sparked her initiative to get her community of women to lead a more active lifestyle – not an easy task for women who spend the majority of their lives taking care of their families. Beka named their team, “Soccer Grannies.”
At the same time, a group of women over 50 years old in Massachusetts had begun a soccer team and league, for health reasons as well as to create a community.
“Health is probably my primary reason for playing,” Kathy Kelly, a player from Reading, said. “And friendships. I have met friends I’ll be keeping for life. I’m going to play until I can’t run anymore.”
The Massachusetts team’s organizer, Jean Duffy, reached out to Beka, and from there, a friendship began. Six months later, they invited the South African women to participate in an over-50 women’s soccer tournament in Lancaster. Jean and her team helped with logistics, securing airline tickets, passports, and a corporate sponsorship that allowed them to fund the trip for the South African women.
“They really charmed us with their singing and dancing and their joy for life on the sidelines of the soccer field,” Duffy said. “We visited them in South Africa the following year and we’ve been sister soccer teams ever since.”
The Bay State Breakers are women who play the beautiful game of soccer. Their current emphasis is on seven age-specific teams (Over 30, Over 40, Over 50, Over 55, Over 60, Over 65 and Over 70) that train and play together throughout the year. They represent Massachusetts in USASA Soccer Fest each July but also have several teams actively playing locally in the EMWSL. L'expressas and Ground Breakers are two such teams.
The Bay State Breaker's relationship with their sister soccer team in South Africa goes back to 2010. To read more about their soccer bond, see: