But, especially because of the way football in South Africa was organised in the past, when players had problems, there was often nobody to turn to. As such – and the local football landscape is littered with examples – many a promising talent was lost along the way. Fortunately, it’s a lot less prevalent nowadays because of the advent of sports chaplaincy.
Football in the Premier Soccer League (PSL) and the National First Division (NFD) has embraced the appointment of chaplains. These dedicated individuals provide emotional support, mentoring and guidance in ensuring a footballer is developed holistically: because it’s not just about on-field talent, it’s also about off-field stability. In the end, the objective is for the player to maximise his potential – and, thereby, improve the performance of the team as a whole. The important point to make, though, is that, while the spiritual angle is important, the overall role of the chaplain is about a lot more: he’s a guide, a mentor, a rock, a friend; someone who shines a light when the path in life and football becomes a little dark.
Ajax Cape Town chaplain Bruce Nadin is the man driving the project – and he believes the concept of chaplaincy is critical, not just in football but in all sporting codes. He is a former chaplain of Leicester City FC in England. Nadin sketched the background which led to him coming to South Africa and how the chaplaincy movement first took root.
“I was leading a church in the UK, just outside Leicester, when through a set of coincidences and circumstances the opportunity came about to become the chaplain at Leicester City,” said Nadin. “I’ve been a life-long fan of the club and it offered me the chance to give back to the community. It was a privilege to work at the club.
“The concept of sports chaplaincy is well-established in England. The majority of clubs have a chaplain, and it has grown exponentially since 2010. I would say that there are about 500 chaplains across all sporting codes in England.
“I arrived in South Africa in 2009. My wife is a doctor and she’s involved with a non-profit organisation, while I had a relationship with the Sports Ambassadors movement (where former Santos midfielder Andre Alexander is an influential figure). Initially, I had no intention of working in football in SA, but circumstances again conspired to get me involved. I spent some time at ASD (African Soccer Development academy) as a life coach.
"I also got to know Jonathan Armogam (former Bush Bucks, Santos and Vasco da Gama winger)), who asked me to walk a journey with him when he had embarked on a process of changing his life. During my time with Jonathan, other PSL players joined in to be part of it. By 2013, I had a supportive relationship with a number of players across the country.
“After this, I realised that, with all my experience, I could be doing something more. At this time, a door opened at Ajax and I became the chaplain at the club. But that also proved to be the catalyst to say something like this was needed not just in football but in all sporting codes. I realised I had to equip others to serves in spaces such as this. I’m a foreigner and I needed to enable others. So we started Sports Chaplaincy South Africa in 2015 and, at the moment, we have about 30 chaplains working in various codes, including the PSL, the NFD, rugby, varsity sports and just recently we have been given the green light by life-saving and canoeing.”
So what does a chaplain do?
“If you ask me what my role is, I usually say I hang around the club with intent - because the most important thing is to build relationships with the players,” said Nadin. “I have breakfast with them, socialise, play table tennis and chat and engage, so they always have somebody to turn to when life gets hard. Importantly, though, it’s not just about being there for the trials and tribulations, but also to share in their joy. I have also been involved in players’ wedding preparations. Also, the aim of the chaplaincy is to be available to all people, irrespective of faith or culture. It’s not about forcing my beliefs on others.”
Nadin remains nuts about Leicester City, which is why he still chokes up when speaking about the recent death of club owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. It has plunged the international football community into a state of mourning. The incident took place last Saturday after Leicester’s match against West Ham. The helicopter, with billionaire Srivaddhanaprabha and four others on board, crashed in a ball of flames in the club’s car park.
Nadin summed up the impact Srivaddhanaprabha had on Leicester, as a city and as a club: “He made us dream – and the crazy thing is the dream came true (winning the Premiership title).”
The Ajax chaplain is still closely associated with his former club and he echoed the tributes that have been pouring in for the Leicester owner.
“I’ve seen the input his leadership had on the club,” said Nadin. “He was more than just an owner. He invested in the club and the community. He built structures that made promotion possible and then led the club to do the impossible. He embraced the traditions of the club, got the staff to realise their potential and instilled an ethos that exuded excellence. His impact went well beyond just the city of Leicester - his life was an unending story of warmth and generosity.
“His death has broken the heart of the city. You have to remember that, in England, football clubs are at the heart of communities; the club represents the identity of the people. And that is why, right now, there is a tangible sense of loss and grief in Leicester.
“Every time I go back to the club, I can see the way we had seen the club before has changed. Leicester has always been seen as the city you drive by to go somewhere else. After Vichai, Leicester became a city you stopped, parked and took a walk. Yes, it’s only football – but, through football, what he did was to change the city’s sense of self.”