Off The Ball

Soccer Grannies and leagues of neighbours

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Mention the phrase ‘football league’, and the immediate reaction of most fans would surely be the biggest, most high-profile domestic competitions around the world – La Liga in Spain with its superstars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the German Bundesliga and current leaders Bayern Munich, or the English Premier League with the likes of Manchester rivals United and City.

But there are plenty of lesser-known leagues where the fun factor or community purpose outweighs the quest for trophies and titles. For example, have you ever heard of South Africa’s Soccer Grannies, who conclusively prove that even at more than 80 years of age, you’re never too old for a vigorous kickabout? Or that 20-20 vision is absolutely not a prerequisite for taking to the pitch? Join on a fascinating tour of some of the world’s quirkier leagues.

Grannies go for goalWhen Beka Ntsanwisi from South Africa took up a personal fight against cancer, her treatment involved trips to a number of public hospitals. However, the social worker was devastated when she saw the conditions suffered by some of the older patients, especially the women. The thought occurred to her that regular exercise would surely be beneficial to the healing process.

In 2005, Ntsanwisi founded a new team by the name of Vakhegula Vakhegula, or “Grannies, Grannies" in the Tsonga language, with the aim of helping senior women stay fit and supple. And with that in mind, there can be no better sporting discipline than football.

The grannies, aged mainly from 40 to 80 but sometimes even older, lace up their boots twice a week for training, often clad in skirts and dresses. Vakhegula Vakhegula is the principle team, but over the years Ntsanwisi has set up no fewer than seven other teams in Limpopo province. The league, which goes by the name The Top Eight, offers the senior ladies an opportunity to contest competitive matches twice a year. The lively proceedings give the lie to the idea that careers end at 40, and adds a delicious twist to a favourite insult directed at wayward strikers, “my grandma could have put that one away!"

Ears for eyesAnother favourite taunt, aimed at players and match officials alike, goes something like “you must be blind!" But in Germany, the Football for the Blind Bundesliga (DBFL) takes the phrase literally. Eight teams contested the first DBFL season in 2008, with the 2013 campaign featuring nine teams and six rounds of matches, played from April to September.

In fact, football for athletes with visual impairment is a well-established variant of the sport. The German form comprises teams of four outfield players and a sighted goalkeeper. The artificial turf pitch measures 40 x 20 m, and similar to traditional indoor football, features rebound walls on the sidelines as an integral part of the play. The really significant difference is the ball itself. It is a little smaller than a regulation adult ball, a little heavier at 510 g, and incorporates a noisemaking device, generally a bell. After all, the players of both sexes are reliant on their ears.

In this variant of football, teamwork has the utmost priority, because structured play would be impossible without plenty of verbal communication. In order to ensure mutual avoidance of injury, players indicate they are about to tackle with the recognised codeword “Voy!" derived from Spanish. Otherwise, commands are exclusively issued by the goalkeepers, the coaches, and guides stationed behind the opposing goal. But at the end of the day, football for the visually impaired shares more than it differs from the conventional game: it ultimately comes down to putting the ball in the net, and the team with the most points and best goal difference wins the championship.

Leagues for neighbours and the homelessChina PR have failed to qualify for the last two editions of the FIFA World Cup™ and are already out of the running for Brazil 2014, but passion for the sport remains deeply ingrained in the huge Asian nation. Almost every province features amateur leagues, with hundreds of local competitions and tournaments.

In Beijing, one neighbourhood league stands out from the rest: the Huilongguan Super League, based in one of the capital's biggest residential areas. The league grew up after some residents in the rapidly-growing district went in search of like-minded football fans. What started out as a simple kickaround at weekends quickly grew into something more substantial. In 2004, nine teams with some 180 players took part in the first real competition. That marked the birth of the Huilongguan Super League in its current form, and it has steadily grown in popularity ever since, with the current season featuring 18 teams.

A sprawling residential district is the stuff of dreams for participants in the Schweizer Obdachlosenliga, the Swiss Homeless League. For several years now, Surprise Street Sport has organised a league for homeless people and the socially disadvantaged. Eighteen teams from a wide variety of backgrounds contest the championship in the course of four tournaments, where the street players not only show off their skills, but can also earn places in the national team and the chance to compete at the Homeless World Cup. Last year's tenth edition of the global tournament featured a total of 56 teams, pointing unmistakeably to the broad range of countries operating similar projects to the Swiss.

The power of football to change livesThis very small selection of the world's more offbeat leagues proves that football knows no age limits and recognises no social barriers – quite the opposite in fact: it brings people together all over the world and can change lives, as the Street League in England demonstrates.

Originally founded in 2001 as an organisation working with the homeless, Street League today is one of the most dynamic and rapidly expanding charitable organisations in Great Britain. Street League has come to specialise in changing the lives of disadvantaged young people, generally lacking employment, education and training, through the power of football. And it is only one of many examples underlining yet again how football is so much more than simply a game.

Have your sayWe've taken a look at a very small selection of the world's more unusual leagues, but perhaps you know about or take part in a similarly unconventional competition? Tell us about it, remembering to keep your posts clean, respectful, on-topic and in English.

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