Mpande Simelane is a true ambassador for New York City soccer. He’s a man who understands soccer’s power for uniting people and he has his finger on the pulse of the city’s soccer scene.
Every Monday night, you can catch him pacing the sidelines at Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 5, where he oversees the NY Men’s Soccer and NY Co-Ed Soccer Leagues and gets to know the players and teams.
In addition to that role, he coaches a team and organizes the Beautiful Game FC Meetup group, which boasts more than 2,150 members. Nevertheless, Simelane says he considers himself “a fan first and always.”
At a young age, Simelane moved to New York City with his father, a champion in the fight against Apartheid. He finished school and moved to South Africa for more than ten years but returned to New York City, where he has become a vital thread in the city’s footballing fabric.
On Wednesday, he spoke with Soccer In NYC and shared important insights about soccer as a form therapy for dealing with grief, the way the Beautiful Game unites communities, and just how much the sport has evolved in our city.
Tell me about your background.
I’m from South Africa, born in exile in Mozambique and grew up here in the city for my formative years as a result of my father being sent here. He was involved in the struggle against Apartheid and was sent here on an Observer Mission through the UN.
I went back there to South Africa for about a decade after independence and lived there until I came back here after losing my mother to cancer. I then reconnected with an old friend from childhood, Michele, and we got married after falling in love.
We attended a few baseball and soccer games and I started coaching at a club, NY International, and working as a representative for NY Men’s Soccer and NY Coed soccer.
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Matt Pape, a coach from Super Soccer Stars, set up a program called Beautiful Game FC, which has been rated the best pick up game in the city, with the aim of helping coaches — it can be a humble living — as well as promoting wellness and, of course, the beautiful game. Beautiful Game FC has been working well and now I hope to make it work for more coaches around the city. I want to see the game grow and to see people get healthy, look good and feel good.
Tell me about your family.
It’s been a long road. My wife developed breast cancer and passed away on October 10, 2016. We met in the 7th grade.
It was really special to me when I started coaching at my current club, NY International, because the director was my first coach and he was a part of what were some of the best years of our lives individually and what was such a strong part of our union.
I’ve really been battling and playing has helped a lot. Football helped more than words can describe after losing my mom and it pretty much saved my life. Now it’s been helping again. My ballers have opened up to me so much as I’ve been open to them and they have shared their struggles.
A lot of people have told me how much playing at my games has helped them and I really have been supported by the football community and the people I’ve met over the years, as well as by old friends, my family, and my wife’s family. They have represented for me so strongly while my family is so far away.
I am also forging strong new relationships and, though it’s still very difficult, I am grateful for my many blessings.
I have two nephews and two nieces in the city. One of my nieces, I coach, the other three I try and be as good an uncle as I can be.
When did you start playing soccer and what made you start playing?
My first official memory of being on a team or anything serious is when I was about five or six and the director of our club walked in the gym and was like, “This,” as he slammed down a football and trapped it with is his feet, “is a futbol!”
The rest is history. But I didn’t play for a very long time because of, I guess, poorer choices. A lot was going on, which is a large part of my motivation for coaching.
I played again in high school after receiving a grant to go to Blair Academy in New Jersey, where I went for a year.
What made you get so involved with soccer?
Before my mom passed, I was very overweight and not living healthy at all. One of the last things my mom said to me was, “I gave you such good genes, please don’t waste them.” She said it jokingly, but serious still. She was a character.
She was involved in the professional league back in her day in South Africa and my uncle played for one of the local teams back home. My mom was a legend and my wife was an angel. Honest. You can write a book about both of them.
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So I started playing to take the pain away after she passed in 2010, got back in shape, and literally started sharing the joy through coaching and whatever I could do to get more involved in football.
Who do you play with now?
I don’t have a team, I guess, other than the team I coach. I’m too busy working and trying to get new people to play and develop the game.
I do, however, get to play random league games and in my pick-up games, which has been therapy for me when I get to play.
We want to see this country bring home a World Cup and there’s much work to be done. Both on and off the pitch. And that goes for South Africa, too.
Sports is the theater of life reflecting what’s going on in a school, community, city, and, at it’s highest, a nation. Both my homes have much work to do.
Who are your favorite teams and players?
That’s tough. Being an international guy, I support lots of clubs from different regions. I’m big on food and I’ve shared many meals and good times with fans from all over. And when you hear it from them, you get involved or caught-up haha.
I’m a huge United fan though. Especially of Sir Alex Ferguson. His morals, discipline, and belief in youth are things that resonate for me.
When I was becoming a fan again and got put on to Alex Ferguson, it really helped keep me grounded. It took me back to my first coach, Ricardo Da Silva.
As for players, I’d have to say Pelé or, to quote a friend, Bob Marley. If I mention any one from this era, that’d be another interview.
You are a real ambassador for soccer in NYC. How did you get so involved with the NYC soccer scene? Tell me about the process — where/when did you start getting involved and how did that involvement grow?
I started coaching in Africa while just playing to keep fit and to get my mind off things after my mom passed away. After moving here, reconnecting with Michele and getting married, things started to fall into place. But it wasn’t easy and it still isn’t.
I first started with coaching and then set up Beautiful Game FC. I had some random, minor involvement with NYCFC. I do league work through NY Men’s Soccer and NY Coed Soccer.
I’m grateful I’m out here doing something positive, though, as much as it’s been a struggle. I’m still working on furthering my level to be on par with my experience and promote the sport.
By working and displaying a high level of passion, I met people who are doing this and that and I’ve just been fortunate enough to have met wonderful people like Jason Racine and Colin Mclear from NY Men’s and Coed soccer as well as Matt Pape from Super Soccer Stars.
There are a lot of us who love the game and it’s great to see it grow. I’ve seen good programs and great coaching throughout the city.
There are good facilities, the latest being Socceroof in Sunset Park. It’s a real bench mark and truly is the first of it’s kind. It’s run by another great individual who I’ve been fortunate enough to meet, Jonathan Lupinelli.
How has the soccer scene changed in NYC since you’ve been here?
Well for starters we have a two more teams: NYCFC and Cosmos.
There’s an amazing atmosphere where the Red Bulls play and a there’s great legacy through Henry. So love for the game is clearly on the rise. And that’s great for the major clubs.
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On a youth level, there are more teams and clubs as well as an improvement in the level of play.
In a lot of areas, it’s not as homogenous so, in a nutshell, there are more people coming together.
One of my most beautiful memories is a whole family coming to a pick-up game I ran — mother, father, and son. The whole day was uniquely beautiful.
I see the level of play evolving too. It’s in music more, on TV more, in literature and just more a part of daily conversation.
The knowledge and understanding of football has spread as well. When I got here, I saw more soccer being played. Now I see more football LOL.
It’s growing. I mean, we’ve got Viera and Villa!
Places like Upper 90 and Banter are doing more soccer events. I see fan parks for UEFA and EPL games and that blows my mind.
I’d love to see more coverage geared toward local teams though. Maybe more documentaries or web series.
What should we look out for in the near future? What about longer-term projects and developments that you’re excited about?
The World Cup!!
Socceroof. It’s an awesome new indoor venue in Sunset Park.
I have ideas, but the thing is putting them into action.
For now I’m still recovering from losing my wife primarily and my day-to-day can be pretty intense.
I’d love to do something around fighting cancer and promoting wellness linked to the Beautiful Game and still be involved with inspiring people of all ages to play through coaching or whatever.
What is the best thing about soccer in NYC?
I’ve always said NYC should be at the summit of US soccer. Football is international, fast-paced, intense, aggressive, confident, bold, beautiful, and best done simply.
That’s New York and New Yorkers.
You can’t force people to love it, but, as Pelé proved, people can’t help but love it when they are properly introduced to it. Just watch the documentary Once In A Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos.
Soccer is growing naturally and there are always ways to make it grow better. It’s about finding what works.
What needs improvement?
More parks and, more importantly, good programs with good coaches. We need more funding for people and programs that are dedicated and passionate as well as experienced.
We need more training in schools. I’ve seen some gym teachers thrown into the deep water [without experience]. At least they’re making the effort. But we need exposure and opportunity to play and watch quality soccer at all levels, ages, locations.
[In the US,] soccer is still unaffordable to a lot of people and still a bit inaccessible. But it’s a poor man’s game in the rest of the world.
I’ve seen a rise in research and medical progress around soccer-specific injuries through New York-Presbyterian primarily. Soccer provides a way forward for more job opportunities for people. People always need work and people are creative and innovative. I see new local companies emerging and shifting their marketing. It’s really amazing to watch and be a part of.
And quality refs should be standard!
Some parks need improvement. I always joke that some places were definitely designed by people who don’t play. You can tell by the fencing/netting, the lack of safety for when the balls go out and children have to go get them. Poor lighting.
Where will you be watching the World Cup? Any specific bars or cool spots you have to visit at least once?
I hope I get to watch it haha. I miss a lot of games because I’m always on-the-go, ensuring kids and bigger kids — adults — get their game on. And then I get drained. I’d love to see as much of it as possible in different atmospheres. For sure you’ll catch me at Socceroof. I have a few people I need to catch up with so hopefully I’ll be where there’s music, food, and football.
Who will you be rooting for? And what is your prediction for the final?
France. Michele was half-American and half-French.
What’s the best borough for soccer?
I’m going to be biased here: BK! But really, it’s too early to be divided. Each borough has a flavor.
NYCFC or Red Bulls — or neither?
Hmm… The first team to build an official stadium in the city of New York.