Bambanani Mbane is unfazed by the tough opponents Banyana Banyana must overcome in the 2019 Africa Women’s Cup of Nations (Awcon), which is currently under way in Ghana, to conquer the continent for the first time and book a ticket to France. The 28-year-old centre back, who was born and bred in Sterkspruit, a rural town in Eastern Cape, credits her upbringing for not fearing any team at the Awcon.
“I am unolali (a person from a rural area),” Mbane says with pride. “I am not ashamed of that. I want to be a motivation for the children where I come from that if you’re dedicated and work hard, you can achieve anything you want. You can end up playing for the national team one day. When I wear the national team jersey and step on the field, I am not just doing it for myself or my friends and family, I am doing it for every rural child with a dream.”
“Juice”, as she is affectionately known, is wearing the national team jersey in her second Awcon, having made her debut in the continental showpiece in Cameroon two years ago. Even though that was the biggest stage of her career, Mbane cut a calm figure at the back and looked like she had been in the Banyana defence for years.
She is comfortable on the ball, even when under pressure, and possesses a passing repertoire that allows her to start moves from the back with ease. Most of those qualities were refined by her uncle, Lisolomzi Mbane, who was part of the crowd that cheered Banyana in their 6-0 drubbing of Lesotho during the Awcon qualifiers earlier this year. “He shouted: ‘That’s my girl. But why are they now playing her at the back?’” Mbane says.
“He was proud. He kept telling the boys he was with: ‘Look at how a defender plays football, not this thing you do to just kick the ball forward aimlessly. You must be calm when you play football.’ He told me that he is proud of me. When he was training me, when I was young, I didn’t get preferential treatment because I was a girl.
“If they were doing 50 laps, I would do 50 laps. We used to run to some river, take a stone there and then come back to where we were training. I knew that I wouldn’t be the last one to finish. And when I got back, he would shout at the boys that they were beaten by a girl. All of that shaped me. I haven’t forgotten about them. That’s why I want to start a tournament where I come from, to motivate the young ones so they know anything is possible.”
Lisolomzi saw Mbane as a striker, which is where he played her. Her love for football was instinctive. “I am the first born at home and the second born is a boy. So when they bought him the ball, I would play it with him. I didn’t have time for playing with dolls. Whenever I saw a football, I would just kick it. The feeling of playing football back then, with no fear and no inhibitions, was surreal. I knew I was hooked,” Mbane says.
Her uncle kept that love burning. He invited Mbane to train with his boys’ team, taught her the basics and laid the foundation that produced one of the best centre backs to don the Banyana jersey.
‘Football is a sport for men’
“I’ll never forget the day I wore a jersey for the first time,” Mbane says. “The jersey was so big it almost reached my ankles because of how short and skinny I was. My uncle nurtured my talent. Obviously there were those who were critical of the idea, saying that ‘football is a sport for men’. But because I had someone who believed in me, I didn’t take that to heart. I’ll never forget that at school we never had a girls’ team so I played with the boys.
“They were sceptical and my uncle wasn’t having it. He said I am going to play and even dared the boys to break my leg. I didn’t read much into that dare because I knew they couldn’t. When they saw my first touch, everyone went crazy. I was playing as a striker back then. From then, they respected me to a point that they would come to fetch me if I wasn’t at training. At the end of the day, all of the challenges I faced to get where I am today made me stronger and tougher as a person.”
Banyana need that strength to finish in the top three at the Awcon to earn a spot at the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup in France. They’re looking good so far in the group stage of the tournament, sweeping Nigeria aside in their opening match and then demolishing Equatorial Guinea 7-1. But this is precisely why their job at the Awcon will become tougher – every team in the tournament now sees them as a real threat.
In their match today, Banyana will look to get past Zambia in Accra (kickoff 6pm SA time) in their last group match. A point will see them top the table and return to Cape Coast to face the runners up of Group A, Mali, in the semifinals on Tuesday. Group A winners, Cameroon, will host Group B’s runners up in Accra on the same day, with the top three teams going to France.
“The World Cup is the ultimate goal,” Mbane says. “I can retire after that.”
‘These are just girls’
Even though their ultimate goal is qualifying for the World Cup for the first time, Banyana also need to break their barren run on the continent. Despite being one of the best teams in Africa, they are yet to lift the Awcon trophy. They have helplessly watched Nigeria (10 times) and Equatorial Guinea (twice) rule the roost. Banyana have fallen short in the past due to poor preparation, not enough mental and physical strength and not converting in front of goal. They have improved all those aspects under coach Desiree Ellis to become this year’s Awcon favourites.
“It’s not easy being here [in the Banyana setup], I don’t want to lie,” Mbane says. “It needs a lot of hard work. It’s not like when you’re in a team for a long time and the place is practically yours. No one owns a place in the national team. You have to be constantly on your toes and work hard. I am someone who works hard. When I am with my club, I train twice a day. I train with boys in the morning [a team coached by Sean Louw, who is Banyana and Bloemfontein Celtic Ladies’ goalkeeper coach] and then with my team [Bloemfontein Celtic Ladies] in the afternoon.
“Training with the boys helps a lot because playing powerful nations like Nigeria and Cameroon isn’t that daunting any more when you’re used to playing with boys. Boys don’t make things easy for you. They’re rough and don’t give you time on the ball. You have to think fast, know what you’ll do with the ball before you get it. They don’t want to be beaten by a girl. So when I come up against these powerful nations, I am ready because I am used to playing against boys who rough me up and I bounce back. At the end of the day these are just girls, how much worse can they be? I’ve faced worse and won.”