From the inside of a hospital room to the centre of the field

04 December 2017

Fezile Hlope isn’t your average 17-year-old. While other teenagers are struggling to get out of bed or strike up a conversation with their crush, this Soweto-native defeated throat cancer to become the youngest referee in South African football history to officiate in an official game. And to the youngsters in his community, Fezile is a role model and a hero.

His love for the game was apparent from as young as 4-years-old when he played imaginary games with bottle caps on a pitch drawn in the dirt and hoped that one day he could be a soccer star. He got his first go at refereeing at the tender age of 11. “I recall we were playing a game in 2011 and they were looking for someone to officiate in a few Under-11 and Under-13 games. That’s when I said I can do it. After doing that, I started to take a strong interest,” explains Fezile.

However, any dreams of soccer glory were shattered when, at only 13-years-old, Fezile was diagnosed with cancer and the pitch where he played with his friends was replaced with the cold room of the hospital as he fought to beat this illness. “It was something that I didn’t expect at all. It made me feel very weak, but I told myself I’m going to fight. I never felt sorry for myself and just saw the illness as a challenge I had to overcome,” he explained in an earlier interview. “It disturbed my normal life because I had to stop going to school. I had to stop attending matches and there were so many other things I couldn’t do because of the illness.”

But Fezile isn’t nicknamed ‘Madala’ for nothing. Meaning ‘old man’, he has always shown a wisdom far beyond his years and this maturity, along with his passion for soccer, would help him get through the darkest days of his young life.

Since he could not play the game, he decided to learn everything he could about it. Between treatments and weekly visits to the doctor, he poured over the rules and studied the games on TV. Fezile did everything he could to stay strong and fit so that when he beat the cancer, he could devote the rest of his life to the sport that gave him hope when it looked like there was none. And it all paid off. “I’ve been well for over two years now, I’m strong,” he says.

Fezile could finally get back to the game that had given him a reason to live and he began refereeing community matches. There, he was discovered by Diski Nine9, an Absa-supported initiative that uses soccer as a tool to educate and empower young Africans to become future leaders. Together with his mentor, ex-Absa employee, Raymond, they turned his passion into a purpose. They helped him study for, and pass, the necessary exams to take his refereeing to the next level.

He then got the chance to write his name in the history books after taking charge of a MultiChoice Diski Challenge match involving Kaizer Chiefs and University of Pretoria – an experience that he remembers fondly. “To be honest, I never thought of it as being something difficult to go in and do. The senior guys showed a lot of professionalism. They gave the necessary respect to the referee, there was a lot of discipline in the game and no one swore at me either. It was wonderful.”

The rest, as they say, is history. “I’m passionate about football and I want to ref at the highest level. I don’t want to sit and do nothing…,” he says. Not that that would ever be an option for this Madala. His record-breaking successes and willpower it took to get there have made Fezile somone the youth in his community can look up to. His story inspires them to follow their own dreams as he pursued his own.

“I want to be officiating in the Absa Premiership, the MTN8, the Telkom Knockout and the Nedbank Cup. And then, in the next six or seven years, I’d like to make the step up to the Champions League, the Confederation Cup and, hopefully, some international games too.”

Inspired by young leaders. Prosper.

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