TZANEEN, South Africa - World Cup fever has spread to South African grannies, with hundreds of poor, elderly women in aprons and skirts fighting for the ball in township games.
Twice a week they swap domestic chores for football, donning football boots instead of their usual rubber sandals to play in local matches.
The 35 women on the Vakhegula Vakhegula squad - meaning 'Grannies' in the local Xitsonga dialect - range from 40 to more than 80 years old and live in a township near Tzaneen, 600 kms north of Johannesburg.
Competition is fierce among the eight teams in the region and the women say football is the best exercise, much better than their usual manual work at home and in the fields.
"I like to play soccer because it helps us. We were sick, but now our temperatures, our blood pressures...have gone down ...even our doctors are amazed when we go for a check-up," said 47-year-old Nari Baloyi, one of the youngest on the team.
Nora Makhubela has suffered six strokes yet the 83-year-old great-grandmother said kicking a ball around had given her strength she did not think she still had.
"My life has really changed...if I were to run with you I would beat you even though I'm much older," she said, smiling.
Makhubela dreams of being around long enough to watch the one-month World Cup finals in South Africa starting on June 11 next year.
"I pray every day to God to keep me alive until 2010. I would really love to watch the games," she told Reuters.
The team have proposed playing a curtain raiser before one of the first-round World Cup matches and said national soccer authorities had told them they would consider the idea.
Community worker Beka Ntsanwisi said she started the team three years ago to help older women exercise all their limbs and to give them a new purpose in life.
"Some of them couldn't even walk properly and if they did something in their free time they would be knitting or sewing and sitting all the time...here they run, shout, fight with you...it keeps them young," she said.
Coach David Maake said working with the women had given him greater satisfaction than any other coaching job.
"With young boys you need more money to achieve many things...here, I may come with my stress...but I will laugh so much until I forget everything," he said.
The team lacks proper funding, with each woman pitching in around $1 a month for soccer balls, kit and travel to their bi-annual competitions with teams from other regions.
Ntsanwisi, who uses her own money to help fund the teams, hopes one day to attract sponsors.
Dozens of local fans support the grannies' games, cheering and blowing vuvuzelas - noisy, plastic trumpets that create a cacophony of noise that is unique to South African football.
"I feel good when the (grannies) play soccer so that they can be fit and strong," said 13-year-old Chamelius Bayani.
Winning seems secondary. Some of the grannies look as if they are struggling to keep going during a game after a long day of housework.
Most come to practice straight from cleaning their houses and cooking meals or after selling food along the township's streets.
Missing a practice is unheard of, however, they say.
"I was too fat...now I can run and teach my grand-kids how to kick. I feel great," Baloyi said.comments