The start of the Safa Women’s National League (SWNL) is a glimpse of light in a long, dark tunnel in women’s football. Talks of a professional league date way back to 2008, when former South African Football Association (Safa) president Molefi Oliphant proclaimed that women footballers would be given an opportunity in the not so distant future to make a living playing the beautiful game.
Although the national league that kicked off in Soweto on 24 August is an amateur league, it gives hope that someday women’s football will be professionalised in the country.
“It’s not yet a reward. It’s a step towards the reward. Yes, it’s a better level, but it’s still not a paying level. Nobody is making a living out of it yet. It’s good that it’s here, but it’s a stepping stone towards what we hope will be great,” said Mary-Jane Sokhela, the owner of Durban Ladies.
Sokhela’s team is one of the oldest women’s football teams in the country. She started the club in Umlazi in 1990. They have dominated women’s football in KwaZulu-Natal. Former Banyana Banyana captain Amanda Dlamini, Zamandosi Cele, Silindile Ngubane and Memory Makhanya are some of the players who have come up through the club and gone on to play for the senior national team.
Provincial powerhouses like Durban Ladies, Bloemfontein Celtic Ladies and Coal City Wizards from Mpumalanga will be tested as they will constantly play against tough opposition.
Late arrivals and no-shows among the officiating team are a regular occurence in the Sasol League. In some instances, matches are played without the full quota of officials. So having a full officiating team plus a match commissioner was a rare and welcome sight in the opening round of the SWNL at the Nike Training Centre in Pimville, Soweto. The level of professionalism with which the first round of matches was handled gave the players the respect they have been requesting for years.
Still work to be done
Former and current players graced the occasion to witness history being made. Former Banyana captain Nthabeleng Modiko and current Banyana forward Rhoda Mulaudzi sat alongside supporters on the grandstand with Mamello Makhabane, Sduduzo Mthethwa, Emily Mogotlhe and other footballers to enjoy the matches and catch up.
But even after a positive first round of matches, Safa still needs to put in a lot of work to make this league a success. The launch seemed like a rush job. Safa launched the league without a trophy and couldn’t answer questions about how much the winners will be paid and if teams will receive grants.
“The prize money will come at the end of the league. We are starting the league now. We are waiting for all the funding that we are expecting, that we are guaranteed we are getting, for us to be able to put those numbers in place. We don’t want to put numbers and change them at a later stage. But we have quite some time to be able to give the media the breakdown in terms of numbers, even the grant,” said Safa vice-president Ria Ledwaba.
Safa had to dip into its Legacy Trust Fund for R10 million to bankroll the project as it didn’t have a sponsor. This money complemented the R5 million that the sports department donated to the project over a period of three years. Safa only released details of three rounds, with the opening round held in Soweto and the second on 7 and 8 September to be played at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), Soweto Campus. Two matches, Celtic vs Durban Ladies on Saturday and UJ’s clash with Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies on Sunday, will be aired on SABC. University of the Western Cape will host the third round on 14 and 15 September.
How the league will operate
The delay in starting the league meant that players have been inactive since December. Safa is yet to release the full fixtures of the 12-team league made up of the nine provincial winners of the Sasol League, University Sport South Africa championship winners, and Celtic and Sundowns, which are the only women’s teams affiliated with professional clubs.
The tournament will be played in a festival format with each province hosting a full round of fixtures to cut costs as matches will be played on a home-and-away basis. Some provinces, like Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape, will host more than one round. Safa is responsible for the transport and accommodation of the teams.
“Women’s football is still amateur. Having a national league is history [in the making] and we hope it is a step towards great things. But Safa still has a lot of work to do. They still need to look for sponsors. This league is still not funded and it doesn’t make much of a difference in players’ lives nor in the lives of the people that have invested so much over the years,” said a concerned Sokhela.
“Looking at how much you put in the league, because you give players money to go to training, money to go to league games. You hire transport to do this or that and at the end of the day, when you sit down and do the actual counting, you find that you spend close to 100-something thousand rands in return for little.”
Safa promised to engage the Premier Soccer League (PSL) to persuade its members to form women’s teams to take part in the league. None of its other 14 teams have come on board yet. It is not clear what would happen if a few PSL teams decided to start women’s teams as Celtic and Sundowns gained automatic entry to the league through their status.
The league will eventually have 16 teams. Two more teams, the finalists of the Sasol League National Championships, will be added next year and the year after that without any team being relegated. Once there are 16 teams, Safa will add a promotion and relegation element to the league.
A welcome addition
Women’s football has welcomed the fact that the best teams in the country will play against each other on a regular basis.
“We heard about the start of the league last year and they had about seven months to prepare. Honestly, it’s very disappointing, I don’t want to lie. They indicated that they are still looking for sponsors, maybe we should give them the benefit of the doubt. The person that is going to benefit [from the league the most] is [Banyana Banyana coach] Desiree Ellis. It will be easier for her to choose the best of the best because they will be in front of her [in one place],” said Coal City Wizards boss Mabu Moroaswi.
Safa has to do better in terms of marketing the league and matches. This will assist in roping in potential investors and help get bums on seats. The opening round had a few spectators but the numbers were disappointing, especially in a venue that is capable of drawing thousands of fans, as is the case for the many grassroots tournaments it hosts. A packed stadium would have looked good on television as the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation showed Sunday’s 3pm match between Sundowns and Richmond United.
“One of the things that can assist to grow the league is making sure that these games are televised because if they are, then sponsors will be interested in investing in women’s football,” Sokhela said. “After all, businesses are looking for mileage. But if it’s done in dark corners, it’s going to be difficult even for teams to do their own marketing.”