Stellenbosch FC is stealing the spotlight in South Africa's most rugby-obsessed town

Beyond the famous rugby players and the wealthy wine farms, there has always been football in Stellenbosch, albeit out of view behind the vines and University ivory towers.

Known for its strong [and traditionally white] rugby history, the town of Stellenbosch's rich football heritage has often been overlooked, but thanks to Stellenbosch FC's quick rise to the South African Premier Division, that is beginning to change.

Situated just outside Cape Town in the heart of the winelands, the university town's rugby club, known as Maties, is made up of over 50 teams. It is thought to be one of the biggest and oldest rugby clubs in the world.

By contrast, the football club was founded just five years ago but advanced to the South African top flight within two seasons. They are currently mid-table, and in contention to qualify for the MTN8 tournament.

They came into existence in 2016 when second-tier Vasco da Gama changed their name and location, moving out of Parow and into the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport (SAS).

Stellenbosch FC and SAS CEO Rob Benadie told ESPN: "Working in Stellenbosch as a consultant with the university in 2006 and 2007, I started chatting to the university about a professional club in this area.

"There had never been one. To me, it was a total uncaptured market. All the professional clubs in Cape Town until then were all the other side of the mountain.

"There's hundreds of thousands of little kids playing football in this area. I always thought that if I owned a football club, I would want it to be in this area."

Their recent move to the Danie Craven Stadium, on the University grounds, holds tremendous symbolic value, given the vast majority of the team and its fans are Black and the venue is named after an apartheid-era coach.

Rugby player, coach, and administrator, Craven reportedly said in 1969, while president of the South African Rugby Board: "There will be a Black Springbok [South African national team rugby player] over my dead body."

Football is a sport traditionally associated with the Black majority in South Africa, while rugby was traditionally tied with the white minority. That is evidenced by the Springbok team naming its first Black captain in Siya Kolisi as recently as 2018.

Goalkeeper Lee Langeveldt is one of several Stellenbosch FC players born and bred in the town. He began his career at local club Idas Valley AFC, which was founded in 1932.

His cousin, Charl Langeveldt, rose to fame as a pace bowler for the South Africa national cricket team. By comparison, Lee's own stellar sporting career slipped under the radar despite a bright start.

"It wasn't easy, especially coming from a well-known rugby town with cricketers [also] coming through here," Langeveldt tells ESPN.

"It was either you went and played for [Cape Town sides] Hellenic back in the day or Ajax. If you could get into those academies, then there was a pathway, but if you played for a local team like Idas Valley, it was very difficult [to forge a career in football]."

Langeveldt's chance came eventually, but he had to leave Stellenbosch in order to pursue his dream.

He explained: "I was scouted to go to a soccer school in Port Elizabeth. They were linked with FC Copenhagen in Denmark. Every couple of years they would send players to go play for FC Copenhagen.

"After two years, I was fortunate enough to sign a contract with FC Copenhagen. I made the move overseas. I was still young -- 16 or 18 at the time."

The Denmark move didn't last though, and he returned home and joined Cape Town side Santos, with a view to playing at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, to date the only World Cup played in Africa.

Langeveldt managed to accumulate a fair amount of top flight experience at Santos, but missed out on the World Cup. Stints at Milano United and Golden Arrows followed before he secured his Stellenbosch homecoming in 2017, with the club only a year old and still in the First Division [second tier].

SAS purchased the club in 2018 and led them to promotion at the first attempt in 2018-19 with Langeveldt in between the sticks.

In their first season in the top flight, Stellenbosch were forced to play their home games in Cape Town due to a lack of suitable venues in their town.

However, the Danie Craven Stadium has now been upgraded to meet PSL standards, allowing the team to play in front of their home fans who will no longer have to travel for 40 minutes into Cape Town to see them... when coronavirus allows.

COVID-19 pushed back the move into Danie Craven Stadium, which the club initially hoped to complete by April 4 2020, when they were scheduled to face neighbours Cape Town City.

Stellenbosch finally kicked off their 2020-21 season there in a 1-1 draw with Swallows FC on October 25. They did not, however, get the chance to share the moment with their supporters, as the match was played behind closed doors.

With regards to uplifting the community, the job has only just begun -- and it has not been made any easier by the fact that supporters cannot yet attend their games.

Benadie said: "It still hasn't sunk in for the community at large that we're going to have Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates [and Mamelodi] Sundowns -- these teams visiting our town every season and our boys playing against them."

After last season restarted following a five-month COVID-19 hiatus, Stellies had to do without players who had been with them at the beginning of the season.

Goalkeeper Boy de Jong returned to the Netherlands and star striker Iqraam Rayners left for SuperSport United to honour the pre-contract agreement he had signed with them.

The team rode out that challenge only to face a lengthy absentee list early in 2021.

So far, though, Stellenbosch are steering the ship reasonably well through muddy waters. It helps that they have a stalwart in the middle of the park.

Nathan Sinkala, who was part of Zambia's triumphant squad at the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, was a surprise signing from TP Mazembe in January 2020.

The Zambian, still only 30, brought a wealth of experience having previously been on the books of Grasshopper in Switzerland, FC Sochaux in France, and Kiryat Shmona in Israel.

By his own admission, it has been tough for him to interact with his new club's supporters given that most of his time in South Africa has been spent under lockdown.

However, nobody needs to explain to Sinkala the importance of the looming home fixture against Kaizer Chiefs on January 23.

"One thing I can say: I've played with Pirates, Chiefs and Sundowns before in the Champions League -- those CAF games," said Sinkala, explaining that he was aware of South Africa's 'big three' before he arrived at Stellenbosch.

While at TP Mazembe, Sinkala was on the losing end against Pirates in the 2013 CAF Champions League second round and also suffered defeat to Sundowns in the 2017 CAF Super Cup.

However, Sinkala was also part of the Mazembe side which won the 2015 Champions League. A highly-decorated player, he did not come to Stellenbosch with the intention of staying stagnant.

"It was my decision to make [joining Stellenbosch]. I just wanted a new challenge... Last season, our aim was to stay [in the top-flight]. This season, our goal is to finish in the top eight," he said.

"As a player, you have to have high ambition. For me and for the team, it will be nice if we win [silverware] this season."

However, no victory on the field could be as significant as the win for the town when supporters finally flock in through the gates of the Danie Craven Stadium to consolidate the dawn of a new era.