Hout Bay United is a small football club in Cape Town, nestled between the expensive wine farms of Constantia and the Atlantic Ocean, that enjoys the quiet support of Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.
It’s not a rich club by any means, and they play in the third tier of South Africa’s football leagues, but aside from Klopp, they also consider Athletic Bilbao a major influence. What is it about this team that attracts such patronage?
Hout Bay United Football Community (HBUFC) was founded in 2014, with the club borne out of informal football games in the vicinity of the harbour. Initially, there was nothing extraordinary about the project. However, the club took on a more community-centred approach as time passed.
“Hout Bay is like a little microcosm of South Africa,” explains Jeremy Elson, the club’s co-founder.
“You’ve got the valley with wealthy middle class. You’ve got the harbour, which is, like, a displaced fishing community, and then Imizamo Yethu, which is a [mostly black] African settlement.”
The amateur club profiles its players and places them in suitable internships at local businesses with a view to full-time employment. HBUFC covers costs for the first month, allowing businesses to hand the players free trials.
The club has 15 men’s and women’s teams and utilises the expertise of senior players for youth coaching. At the time of writing, every player in their first team squad is coaching HBUFC’s youth, studying at a tertiary institution, and/or working for a local business.
They afford this community outreach thanks to the likes of Klopp, who has visited the club during the Premier League offseason more than once, and his agent Marc Kosicke. Their donations to the HBUFC have reached the R1.5 million mark (approx. US$100,000).
Klopp made headlines last year for a £10,000 (approx. R190,000) donation to the Joy is Round initiative run by HBUFC. Nevertheless, the media has dedicated only sporadic attention to his ongoing support of the community club.
The German’s backing — financial and otherwise — has had a significant impact on HBUFC. Elson told ESPN that a 2017 event which Klopp attended raised over R300,000 for the club.
According to Elson, Kosicke found out about the club during his time living in nearby Llandudno, and he and Klopp both grew attached to the project.
The money donated by Klopp and Kosicke to HBUFC amounts to almost a year of running costs, Elson says: “They’ve given money consistently for the last two or three years.”
The football club costs about R150,000 ($10,000) a month to run. It’s free to play football in Hout Bay, so no-one has to pay for their kit, membership fees, transport, coaches and equipment.
They also don’t have to pay for special projects, as Elson explains: “We run programmes like Wordworks twice a week.
“We discovered that kids love playing football and hate doing homework. If we only let them play their football if they do their homework, then they do the homework.
“Every team from U12 up goes through an Ikasi Youth Leadership course, which we run internally. [Klopp and Kosicke] have helped cover the running costs of the football club.”
The Liverpool boss is not the only high-profile football personality with links to Hout Bay. Former South Africa internationals Matthew Booth and Bradley August have coached at HBUFC. Both played professionally in Europe, but the club’s biggest overseas influence has been Athletic Bilbao.
On paper, the link between HBUFC and the Basque club is a dotted line. Irishman Eoin Fray, a technical advisor to the Cape club, studied at Athletic Bilbao en route to attaining his FA Academy Managers’ License. But philosophically, Athletic and Hout Bay are two peas in a pod.
Like the La Liga club, HBUFC sources all of its players from the local community. It would, however, be pointless seeking to emulate a Spanish club in South Africa without addressing the uniquely South African problems which stifle development on and off the football pitch.
One observation Booth made upon his arrival in Hout Bay as a coach in 2016 was that the squad was divided along racial lines. He did his best to integrate the players through team-building exercises.
Elson admits that despite Booth’s impact at the club, the problem did not disappear overnight. “I think it’s something we still work hard on. I don’t think we’ve found the answer. I think the challenges are different for each community,” he says.
HBUFC have made one important step in the right direction, however: ensuring that the club’s leadership structures are genuinely representative of the community they live in. This creates an environment which allows the likes of CEO Dali Fekenisi to thrive.
Despite his shy nature, Fekenisi, who hails from Tarkastad in the Eastern Cape, has plenty to be proud of, having been with HBUFC since inception and risen up the ranks.
“I started as a coach, coaching the ladies, and graduated … I became Chief Executive last year,” Fekenisi tells ESPN. He still manages HBUFC’s women’s side, which plays in the regional league.
Fekenisi has seen the club come a long way both on and off the pitch. He is in charge of HBUFC’s Community Service portfolio, which is central to the vision of the HBUFC Trust established to run the club.
Four hours of community service per week is compulsory for HBUFC players. According to Elson, this has a positive impact on the pitch as well as off it.
“The community service really helps the guys; it starts to ignite sparks of interest in them that they weren’t aware that they had,” Elson explains. “It starts to expand different areas of interest that they had so that their sole focus isn’t on football.
“If all of your focus is on your football the whole time, then your highs are too high and your lows are too low. When you have a victory, you over-celebrate. That leads to lots of kids drinking. When you lose, you lose too much confidence and you get depressed and go into your shell.
“If you’ve got interests outside of the game, then you can separate your performance on the football field into a box and understand it for what it is. Obviously, you try your best, but you don’t let it affect your mental state.”
Despite a focus on holistic human development rather than just technical ability, HBUFC is hugely ambitious when it comes to football, looking to gain promotion to the top flight.
“Hout Bay is a gem of talent; there’s a lot of talent that needs to be unearthed,” Fekenisi says. “The challenge is: it’s very far [from other clubs], so the other clubs don’t get to expose their players.”
Some HBUFC players do get picked up by bigger clubs, with SuperSport United’s acquisition of winger Duran Phillips a recent example. However, if the Hout Bay community really wants to see its players flourish regularly in the top flight, the best way would be for the local club to win promotion.
That is easier said than done, but Hout Bay have high expectations of their players.
“Physically, we have clear benchmarks against the PSL players,” Elson says. “[The players] know how many press-ups a PSL player can do in a minute, how good their beep test is, how far they can run – all the professional benchmarks.”
On the pitch, results have improved. Hout Bay won promotion to the ABC Motsepe League in 2017 under August, who lifted them from the bottom of the fourth-tier SAB League. The former Bafana international resigned in 2019, but Hout Bay have remained on an upward trajectory.
Until recently, they were among the frontrunners in the Western Cape ABC Motsepe League. Having entered the new year three points off the top, they have slipped off the pace somewhat after a poor run of form.
Win, lose, or draw, one guarantee is that the Hout Bay locals will show up to offer passionate support.
ESPN attended the 2-0 home defeat to Zizwe United on Jan. 31 and found all the camaraderie one would expect at a South African football game.
Children kicked balls around on the side of the field. Adults made their voices heard when the team were on the wrong end of refereeing decisions, offering up trademark Cape Town expletives. The atmosphere was as jovial as one could expect given the setback on the pitch.
The broader goals of uniting the community and winning promotion to the top flight remain works in progress, but still very much attainable.
HBUFC are far closer than they were in 2016, when Booth was brought in to save them from losing their SAB League status. There was an element of fortune in this meeting of minds, as it was organised by the Olympic Channel as part of a documentary series. Ultimately, it had a long-lasting impact on their philosophy.
“The model originally was to use local coaches only and bring players in to lift the players in Hout Bay, because it was a higher level of football than anyone in Hout Bay had played before,” Elson explains.
“The Olympic Committee contacted us. They were doing a series called ‘The Z Team’. They said they just wanted to do a piece about us. The idea was that they’d send a professional coach to a struggling team to try and change their fortunes.
“Matthew Booth was the first [ex-pro footballer] to come in and work with the guys. That was definitely a watershed moment. He did quite a lot of work off the field, quite a lot of team-building.
“His professionalism in his approach changed us. Pretty much off the back of that, we changed the model to focus on local players and bring in top coaches.”
So while their involvement has not been documented play-by-play in the media, Klopp and Kosicke, and the host of other big names to take an interest in the seaside team, have together made a priceless contribution to the Hout Bay community.