Saturday, September 12, 2015

Goal! The Soccer Fence by Phil Bildner

Twice a month, my sister and me rode the bus with Mama to a different part of Johannesburg where she worked. My sister usually spent all day in the garden, raking and planting. I spent all day with my face pressed to the fence, my eyes glued to the boys chasing after the black-and-white leather ball.

"Hey!" I called. "Hey!"

But not a single boy ever looked my way as they raced up and back along the green carpet of grass.

"One day," I whispered. "I'm going to play on a field just like that. One day real soon."

But at the height of the apartheid years in South Africa, boys of different races didn't play together. Separately they practice the same skills, the same game, and separately they dream of playing for their national team.

Time passes. Nations place sanctions against South Africa and eventually President de Klerk ends apartheid. Nelson Mandela is released from prison and then elected president. Mandela recognizes the power of sports to bring his nation together, and he sponsors a multiracial South African Football Association.

But old customs don't change easily. The boy still watches through that fence. Once he retrieves a ball that goes over the fence with his best bicycle kick.
"Can I play?" I called.

Not a single boy looked my way.

But the South African team Bafana Befana begins to win and at last they meet Tunisia in the final two, playing for the Africa Cup. Players of both races score to win the game.
Standing on my seat, I spotted the blond boy standing on his seat in the next section.

He saw me and raised his fist. I raised mine back.

The blond boy and I led the snaking line of frenzied fans in and out of the aisles as we celebrated the first championship soccer trophy we'd ever won.

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall," wrote Robert Frost, and Phil Bildner's The Soccer Fence: A story of friendship, hope, and apartheid in South Africa (Penguin Books, 2014) tells the story of one fence, his symbol of the wall of Apartheid, not just in law but in the game that represents the aspirations of a nation. Youngsters who know the experience of sports will easily understand the theme of this simple book, the joy of coming together as a team in a game they all love. The realistic artwork of Jesse Joshua Watson illustrates the love of the game and the desire to join as the main character watches hopefully through a fence, and kids will sense the meaning of the metaphor of the open gate in that fence as together both boys join the game.

For readers outside South Africa, Bildner appends a historical note, "A Little Bit of History," a list of print and online sources, and a timeline of Apartheid.

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