As soccer fans around the United States engage in arguments about what’s wrong with youth soccer in our country (with plenty of focus on how the pay-to-play system manages to shut talented players out of the US Soccer system), it’s easy to forget that not everyone even comes from a place where the opportunity for that argument even exists. Players in developing or recently developed countries like South Africa may need the game to simply survive.
Nashville SC midfielder Lebo Moloto, a native of Chebeng, South Africa (a village outside the city of Polokwane), is one such player. He managed to parlay his soccer skill into a college degree and a professional career in America, and wants to give other young people from his hometown that opportunity. He was lucky enough to grow up with parents who believed in his talent and – yes – sent him to a pay-to-play academy. He eventually turned that shot into a scholarship and degree from Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Kentucky.
“For me, what happened was I was playing grassroots on the dirt, and somebody saw me,” he explained. “I went to an academy that my parents had to pay, but they were able to do that because it was something that I wanted to do – I think it was like $30 a month. I had better coaching, I had better facilities, there was grass, and that’s where I got my first soccer shoes. [Before that], it was barefoot, or there would be like shoes my mom bought that I’m supposed to dress up in and I’d mess them up playing. Or sometimes, it’s not uncommon to borrow people’s shoes. So we’d like rotate shoes.
“What happened was the fact that somebody saw me play there, and they gave me an opportunity. They said, ‘let’s go to Johannesburg for a tryout.’ We had a tryout and I got selected, and that’s how I got out of that situation. We had a tournament in Cape Town and there was an American coach that offered me a scholarship. I was like, ‘you know what? That’s a good opportunity.’ I took it and I don’t regret it.”
This December 23, Moloto will host the Chebeng Cup, an opportunity for young boys in his hometown (he’s hoping to add a girls’ division in future years) to realize that there are opportunities outside the village they live in. An area that has a high incidence of truancy and drug use among the youth could use a little inspiration to stay on the straight and narrow.
Moloto’s path is obviously one that has seen him succeed. It was the birth of his son Josiah this Spring that further inspired Moloto to take a long look at life, and changed his perspective. He’s always had hopes of being a positive influence on his hometown, but having a child of his own was what gave him that push to get the Chebeng Cup off the ground.
“At the age 12, 13, 14 you either go left or right,” Moloto said. “I think if before they go left or right we say, ‘hey, there’s opportunities; you’re not alone and there’s hope. There’s opportunities out there, but guys you have to meet me halfway.’ What I’m going to do next year is for you to be able to participate in this, we’re going to team up with schools and see if they can give us registration books. I’ll say, ‘if you miss more than five school days without a reason, you don’t play. If you fail, you don’t play.’ Eventually, hopefully we’ll grow and we’ll grow and we can be able to provide free tutoring once a week.
“Every time I’ve been home, there’s been situations where I’ve seen kids that – young kids – they’re sitting on a corner, doing drugs. I look back and I’m like, ‘when I was that age, we had a soccer team.’ We didn’t have a lot, but we had a few balls that we could train with. Now you look at it and you say, ‘what can I do to make a difference?’ I think also just having a baby changes your perspective on life. I think that might be the main push, because I’ve always wanted to do it. It was just a matter of the right time, and I think this was the right time.”
Those who know Moloto aren’t surprised that the 28-year old would want to give back to the community that he grew up in. Indeed, the entire Nashville SC organization tends to have a philanthropic bent, and Moloto’s love for – and desire to help – his hometown fits right in with his personality. A charitable initiative doesn’t surprise NSC head coach Gary Smith one bit.
“Honestly, I think we have a fabulous group of human beings here, and that’s really what it boils down to,” said the gaffer. “You’ve got players in this group that have in some cases come from difficult surroundings, and they want to give back. It’s down to the person: Lebo’s one of those guys. We have numerous individuals that want to try and immerse themselves not only in our community, but maybe from the backgrounds that they’ve come from or others that are not quite as fortunate.”
Those who wish to contribute to the cause can donate material goods or with financial support at the event’s official GoFundMe page here.
Certainly, any assistance, monetary or otherwise, is appreciated in the effort to provide as much help to Moloto’s community as possible. In a village that only recently added running water – Moloto previously paid for his family to bore a well – the opportunity won’t be taken for granted.
“I think to be honest, it’s to try to give them hope,” he said. “I have a lot of friends who are playing professional soccer football in South Africa that I’ve invited. I sat down and I looked at it and I said, ‘I don’t think that’s enough. I don’t think bringing these guys here is going to have an impact on them. We’ll see if we can take them out of where I grew up, and give them an opportunity to go and play a team like Kaiser Chiefs in Johannesburg.’ I think that’s bigger than just inviting professional soccer players.”
Certainly, there’s one professional soccer player who has their futures in mind. Donate to his cause to help Lebo Moloto make a difference.
Please donate to Lebo’s cause. The link is above or can also be found here.