Leandra Smeda is a little more than three hours away from achieving three of her biggest dreams. And this after she had already begun giving up on attaining her main personal goal this year. The Banyana Banyana utility player dreamt of winning the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations (Awcon), playing in the World Cup and, importantly, earning a professional playing contract abroad.
For a period, all these seemed out of reach. Banyana finished fourth in their previous two Awcon campaigns, so if they stuck to this trend in the current Awcon, under way in Ghana, they’d miss qualifying for the Fifa Women’s World Cup. Only the top-three finishers in the continental championship qualify as Africa’s representatives in the global showpiece, set to take place in France next year.
But Smeda and company have decidedly flipped the script, beginning their Awcon campaign with guns blazing. They’ve recorded two wins and a draw to finish at the top of Group B, beating perennial rivals and 10-time African champions Nigeria 1-0, demolishing two-time champs Equatorial Guinea 7-1, and drawing 1-1 against a plucky Zambia side.
Now, Banyana are just a match away from qualifying for the World Cup for the first time. A win over Mali in the semifinals on Tuesday (kickoff 8.30pm SAST) will book them a ticket to France. Nigeria will take on Cameroon in the other semifinal earlier in the day.
Should Banyana overcome Mali, another 90 minutes, with an added 30 if necessary, would be the only thing standing between the senior national women’s team and their maiden Awcon title.
Winning the Awcon and qualifying for the World Cup would be a fitting climax to what has been a good year for Smeda. In June, exactly a month before she turned 29, she signed a contract with Gintra Universitetas in Lithuania, where she also played Uefa Champions League football (she even scored in the prestigious tournament).
“I had given up on ever playing abroad,” says Smeda. “The agency that I signed with earlier this year first came with an offer from a team from Russia. But it was a new team that had just got into their professional league and they decided against signing foreign players this season. The agency then came with the offer from Gintra. When I saw that the team plays in the Champions League, I decided to take the offer.
“It’s not often that South African-based players get contracts overseas. But that’s slowly changing. When I looked at my age, I realised that such an opportunity might not come again so I took it with both hands and made the most of it. Before the deal came, I didn’t have dreams of playing abroad any more because I looked at my age. There aren’t many more playing days left. I just decided to enjoy my football and the goals that I was now chasing was to win the Awcon and qualify for the World Cup.”
From the wings to the centre
Smeda is now on the brink of completing a hat-trick of dreams: she has played an instrumental role in Banyana’s progress in the 2018 Awcon thus far and as the team moves closer to the main prize, their financial incentives increase, with each player promised a R120 000 bonus should they win the event. The winger, who has also played as a wingback, has been used by by Banyana coach Desiree Ellis as a central midfielder in the competition. Smeda has been outstanding there, giving Banyana muscle and creativity.
“We felt that we needed someone who had physical presence in that position,” says Ellis, speaking about the switch from Banyana’s temporary home, the AH Hotel in Accra, Ghana. “I feel that she is the unsung hero for us in the tournament so far. The people who get the awards and rewards are always the goal scorers. But if there is one unsung hero in our team, it’s Leandra Smeda.
“She does so much for the team, putting her body on the line … She gives us a little bit of stability. I thought against Nigeria she was really good. She enjoys playing in this position. She has played in it at UWC [University of the Western Cape] and at Gintra they also play her there. She’s got to be on top of her game against Mali because that game will take a superhuman effort.”
Banyana have managed to finish top of their group for the first time since the 2008 Awcon. Tonight’s match will be their seventh successive appearance in the semifinals. Mali, on the other hand, will appear in their debut Awcon semifinal. Everything points to a Banyana win, which is why Ellis and her side must guard against complacency (after all, the Malians did eliminate the hosts, Ghana).
Baltic challenges ahead
If Ellis’s team continues with the ruthless streak they showed in the first two matches of the group stage, Banyana will qualify for the World Cup and will leave Ghana as champions. That triumph would be a fitting end to the year for Smeda. But with a World Cup ticket in her hand, 2019 would even be better as she has also been asked to return to Gintra for a full season this time around. “We played in two leagues that side, the Baltic League and their domestic league, which doesn’t have that many teams,” says Smeda.
“The Baltic League [made up of champions and runners up from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, along with an invited team] was quite competitive because we were playing against the best teams from our neighbouring leagues. The teams in there were quite good, especially Minsk [an invited club from Belarus], who won the league and we finished second. It was a good experience but the part that I enjoyed the most was playing in the Champions League.
“It was quite exciting, a whole different environment. The teams that competed there were good. We got knocked out in the Round of 32. It felt good scoring in the Champions League, hopefully next year when I go back I’ll get an opportunity to play there again and maybe we get drawn against the likes of FC Barcelona and PSG [Paris Saint-Germain]. That’s something to look forward to.”
Smeda’s status, thanks to playing for Banyana, was already elevated in her home town of Velddrif in Western Cape. If she were to return there as an African champion who will be playing in a World Cup, and who scored in the Champions League, that would give her cult status. But she remains humble, even with all the adulation and respect she gets when she is home.
“I still train with some of the guys I grew up with,” Smeda says. “The young ones, when they see me train,they just run with me. It’s a nice feeling. The club I started football at, Atlantic Rovers, have a lot of juniors and when I am there they ask me to come and take a training session, maybe once a week to work with the kids.
“It’s always nice to give back even if it’s just with my time. I am also doing this so that I can be a role model to the young boys and girls from my home town; to make them realise that there is life outside Velddrif and they can achieve whatever dreams they set their minds on, as long as they work tirelessly to achieve that.”