Shilene Booysen’s hard work behind the scenes has finally put her in the spotlight. The new coach of South Sudan’s senior women’s national team was Banyana Banyana’s performance analyst when they qualified for their maiden appearance in the Fifa Women’s World Cup in 2019. Booysen held that role for six years, having been appointed in 2014 by Dutch coach Vera Pauw.
Born in Malmesbury in the Western Cape, Booysen gave up a career in engineering for the beautiful game. It is a decision she doesn’t regret as she now leads an ambitious team in which the South Sudan Football Association (SSFA) has invested heavily to become among the best on the continent.
The SSFA launched the country’s first-ever women’s national football league, consisting of eight teams, earlier this year. Booysen is the first woman to lead the Bright Starlets and the first South African woman to coach outside of the country.
“Since the beginning of last year, I felt like I had reached a plateau in my role with Banyana,” said Booysen. “Then I started to speak to Des [Banyana coach Desiree Ellis] about taking on a more coaching role. I think that’s where it originated from. I mean, I am a coach. I coached Desiree Ellis. I think I wanted people to see me as that. And when I spoke to my representative at the time she said there were opportunities that were going to come up.”
Booysen’s season-long sojourn at Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League in the United States, where she reunited with Pauw, turned the spark of venturing into coaching into a full-blown fire. She is highly qualified, holding goalkeeping licences from world football federation Fifa as well as the South African Football Association, a Confederation of African Football A coaching licence and sport analysis and psychology qualifications.
“I felt like why would I go to Europe when there’s so much to do in Africa? I mean, we always send our best people overseas, and what is overseas for us? What does it mean for Africa? It just means we have less talent and capable people to take Africa forward,” she said.
When the SSFA advertised the coaching job towards the end of 2020, Booysen and her agent, Lindi Ngwenya at Sisu Sports Management, saw it as the perfect opportunity. Yet Booysen knows it will be a mammoth challenge with South Sudan still finding their feet on the international stage. But her passion and desire to grow the game make it an exciting project. After going on a nationwide selection tour, she will lead the side for the first time against Ethiopia in two international friendlies in April.
“It’s not like I’m gonna build a team and they are going to be different in three months. This is a process that’s going to happen over the next two years and I don’t foresee us winning the World Cup in two years, but it doesn’t mean we cannot put in a development structure. My personal goal is to get them a [good] Fifa ranking. If we can get a [good] Fifa rank, we will get a bit more respect. The talent is there, it’s just about building a culture of wanting to do better,” she said.
Booysen’s football career, which started at the late age of 25, didn’t last long because of an anterior cruciate ligament injury she sustained at 27, shortly after she was selected for Banyana. It meant she never donned the green and gold.
“In my second year I was selected to the national squad, which was kind of huge but I felt like that was not the ultimate for me. I mean, I had a job that was amazing, I was an engineer in a corporate company. It [football] was just another thing to do.
“But I am passionate about whatever I tackle and then I started doing coaching licences and I started feeling there could be more here. There’s more to teach, there’s more to give. That changed me. That changed my outlook on football,” she said.
Booysen didn’t have any sporting influences in her family when she was growing up. A pastor’s child, she spent most of her time in church. And like her football career, becoming a parent happened unplanned.
“I never wanted kids because I’m the youngest of eight children and there was never time for me. I wanted to do something big, you know, something special. I didn’t see myself putting kids through that kind of thing. But I have to say that God has a shrewd sense of humour. So a couple of years ago, there was an appeal for someone to take a little boy in. He was six months old,” she said.
The boy, Xavier, stole her heart and 10 years later their bond is stronger than ever. “He’s more like the family child because we all look after him, but I am his sole caregiver. I don’t think I would be able to give him back if his parents came knocking. You fall in love with kids. People say you fall in love with football. Football is not something I fell in love with but kids, that’s something [else]. I fell in love the first minute I saw him.
“I don’t know how it came about that we are still together. He was supposed to go back after six months but it kind of just worked out [that he stayed]. We fight a lot, but I also think we miss each other a lot when we don’t see each other. He likes it when I go away so he can get a break from me.”
Xavier is as old as South Sudan, Africa’s youngest country, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011. The Bright Starlets are infants in international football, having played their first match in 2019. Just like she helped raise Xavier, Booysen has to nurture and guide this young team to become a force on the continent. Her qualifications and coaching pedigree make her the right woman for this tough assignment and, like parenthood, it will be immensely rewarding should she succeed.