It’s not often that sports stars are able to represent their country in more than one high-profile sporting code. Seasons overlap in the never ending cycle of sport and demands are already high on modern athletes, so it goes without saying that it takes a dedicated and special star to gain national colours in two sports.
Multitalented Malawian Towera Vinkhumbo is one such individual. “I could never choose between soccer and netball,” she said.
The Blantyre Zero FC defender has been the backbone of the Malawi national teams for football and netball. The 28-year-old joined the She Flames camp for the Cosafa Women’s Championship football tournament in Port Elizabeth straight after arriving back from Liverpool, England, where she represented the Malawi Queens in the Vitality Netball World Cup in July.
“There is not much of a difference between soccer and netball. I am a defender and the laws for a defender are the same in netball and football. The mindset that I have when I am playing football is the same with netball. I only concentrate on defending the goals and obstructing the strikers,” she said.
Her experience and defensive skills were vital in the She Flames 11-1 success against Mozambique in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics qualifier in Blantyre in April 2019. Vinkhumbo was part of the team that finished third in the 2016 Fast5 Netball World Series in Australia as well as the Malawi Queens that beat New Zealand at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Football in her blood
“My interest for sport started when I was in primary school, in grade 7. During sports days, I used to play netball and soccer at school. I played both sports because it was entertaining for me. I enjoy being part of both sports and I don’t think I would be able to choose between the two,” Vinkhumbo said.
Football was a family affair in the Vinkhumbo household. It was her late brother, Aubrey Vinkhumbo, a well-known defender in Malawi football, who nurtured her interest. His love and passion for the game rubbed off not only on Towera but also his nine other siblings.
“I was born into a sport-loving family. We are 11 children, five girls and six boys, and I am the ninth-born. My sister Salonie, who I started playing with, was the captain for the Malawi team in Cosafa last year. We are together in the squad this year. She also plays netball, but she has never played for the national side.
“My other siblings have stopped playing sports due to work and one of my older sisters is the team manager of Kukoma Diamonds Netball club, the team Salonie and I play for. My late brother, who was the first-born, was a very popular soccer player who motivated us to get into sport.”
Making her name at a young age
Vinkhumbo enjoys travelling with her sister because they encourage each other in tough times. She smiled and said there was no competition between them as her sister plays as a midfielder in football and a goal shooter in netball. Vinkhumbo’s prodigious talent saw her make her debut for the Malawi women’s football team in 2001 at the unbelievable age of 10.
No surprise then that she made history by being the youngest player in the squad, which travelled to Zimbabwe for the Cosafa Women’s Championship that year. In 2004, she went with the team to the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) but, in 2006, she fell out of favour in the national setup and returned to playing for her local football team.
“I played at a local level when I was not picked for national duties,” Vinkhumbo said. “There was a certain time in Malawi where there was lack of sponsorship for women’s football, so I concentrated more on netball.”
It took 13 years for her to make a comeback to national football colours.
“I was then recalled to the national women’s soccer team this year for the Olympics qualifiers, after the team selectors saw my abilities while playing for the local team.”
The fitness trainer and human resource management student participated and finished in sixth position with the Malawi Queens at the Netball World Cup, after losing 68-50 against Jamaica in the play-off for fifth position.
“When we went to the World Cup, Malawi was rated number six in the world and then we heard the news that we had dropped to number nine. It was tough for us, knowing that we had the job to maintain our position by winning our games so that we can go back to our sixth place.”
Tough juggling act
Switching to football after the Netball World Cup, Vinkhumbo’s dream was to help her team qualify for the semifinals of the Cosafa Women’s Championship for the first time in their history. She couldn’t do that. But there was no time for her to mope around as the Olympics qualifiers followed immediately thereafter, with a two-legged clash against Kenya. Harambee Starlets got the better of Vinkhumbo and company, defeating them 5-3 on aggregate to advance to the third round.
When asked if taking part in major sporting events back to back takes its toll on her fitness levels and wellbeing, the mother of a 20-month-old girl said: “The way I am feeling now, it does not feel like I’ve come from the Netball World Cup. It’s just normal for me.”
Vinkhumbo’s goal is to finish her studies and pursue a coaching career in either football or netball one day.
“I am playing with the young generation. Most of the people who I started with have stopped playing. I want to encourage the younger players to concentrate on both education and sport.”