The pint-sized Thembi Kgatlana is unfazed by the massive responsibility on her shoulders: to do well in the United States not only for herself, but also for future generations of South African footballers looking to follow in her footsteps.
The 22-year-old forward is part of a growing list of Banyana Banyana players who are plying their trade abroad. In February 2018, she signed with Texas-based Houston Dash to reunite with Banyana teammates Janine van Wyk and Linda Motlhalo.
A few months later, Leandra Smeda joined Gintra Universitetas in Lithuania where she is playing Uefa Women’s Champions League football. Last month, Refiloe Jane and Rhoda Mulaudzi became the first South Africans to be signed in the Australian league with their moves to Canberra United.
“All the players who come from Banyana and are now playing overseas have a task to fulfil,” says Kgatlana from Banyana’s base, Town Lodge in Summerstrand, Port Elizabeth, where they are hoping to retain the Council of Southern Africa Football Associations (Cosafa) Women’s Championship crown they won in Zimbabwe last year.
“We’ve waited for a long time for our players to go overseas. It was Portia [Modise] and Mpumi [Nyandeni] who opened the doors for us and made their opportunities count. But after that, it was quite dry for the country. We didn’t see a lot of female players going overseas.
Two years back, when Janine signed a huge contract with Dash, it started giving people hope because it came immediately after the  Olympics. It made the world realise that South African players aren’t so bad. I and Linda, 20, then signed for Dash at a very young age. And then a few months later, you get Fifi, Leandra and Rhoda also going overseas.”
In her short Banyana career, Kgatlana has matured with each tournament, going from an erratic but troublesome attacker in the 2016 Africa Women’s Cup of Nations (Awcon) to leading Banyana to victory in last year’s Cosafa Women’s Championship. She returned from Zimbabwe as the player of the tournament.
Earlier this year, she was in the running for the Confederation of African Football Women’s Player of the Year award, but lost out to Nigeria’s Asisat Oshoala. After her impressive performances at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, Kgatlana raked an impressive six individual awards.
The call that changed her life
Overseas contracts come with responsibility: players have to do well to raise the country’s profile so that clubs around the world are exposed to the talent that resides at the southernmost tip of Africa. That is exactly what Kgatlana is doing at Dash.
The Mohlakeng-born forward’s move to the US came after two years of waiting on tenterhooks, but it didn’t show in her game. “I waited two years after the Olympics to realise my dream of playing abroad,” Kgatlana says. “I thought that I would be signed immediately after the Olympics, but that didn’t happen. It was hard to accept, but I couldn’t afford to drop my performance despite what I was going through emotionally. Every day, I was hoping to get a call, an email or something where someone would say that we want you. That didn’t come for two years. I was frustrated not at myself, but at the fact that no one wanted me. I kept on working hard for UWC [University of the Western Cape] and made my time count in the national team. Eventually, at the right time, things aligned and I got that call that I had been waiting for, that Dash wanted me. That call changed my life.”
Former Banyana coach Vera Pauw, who manages the Houston-based outfit, called Kgatlana about the offer and helped her transition from amateur to professional footballer in one of the most competitive leagues in the world. Pauw wasn’t the only familiar face who made things easier for Kgatlana in the US. Van Wyk and Motlhalo were already settled, as well as assistant coach Shilene Booysen, who had served as a performance analyst for Banyana. But the move wasn’t without its complications. Kgatlana had to make a huge sacrifice as 2018 was supposed to be the final year of her studies towards a degree in tourism.
“I was excited when the deal was finalised, but once again, I had to sacrifice my school because I also took a break in 2016 to focus on the Olympics,” Kgatlana says. “I have been given five years by UWC to finish my degree. I can continue to study while I am in the US. We are still arranging how I can write my exams and submit my schoolwork considering that there’s a seven-hour time difference between Houston and South Africa. The sacrifice that I had to make isn’t that bad, because I get to continue playing soccer and will have my degree at the end of the day.” Only three modules stand between Kgatlana and her degree. If she deals with those modules like she deals with defenders, they stand no chance. But her immediate challenge is helping Banyana retain the Cosafa crown.
Kgatlana started only two matches for Dash in the 16 appearances she made in the recently concluded National Women’s Soccer League season. The Texas-based team finished sixth and will not take part in the play-offs. Despite not playing much, her stats are impressive when you consider that in her debut season as a professional in a foreign league, she managed two goals and three assists in her 376 minutes on the field.
“It was a bit challenging for me because I came from the Sasol League where I wasn’t getting training every day, and then I had to step up to compete with the best players in the world. Next season will be better,” Kgatlana says.
The 22-year-old is aiming to return to Houston after having helped Banyana qualify for the World Cup by finishing in the top three of the Awcon. Her English teammate at Dash, Rachel Daly, has already seen her country book their ticket to France. The World Cup is the only major competition that Kgatlana hasn’t participated in with the senior national team. Should Banyana qualify, France would be a swansong for the likes of Van Wyk, Nyandeni and Noko Matlou, and lay a solid foundation for rising stars such as Kgatlana and Motlhalo.
Off the ball
Kgatlana’s age betrays her maturity. She is politically conscious and an inspiration for the youth from her township. In July, she hosted the second annual Thembi Kgatlana tournament at the Pule “Ace” Ntsoelengoe Stadium in Randfontein. Proceeds went towards buying balls, sanitary pads that were donated to schools, and blankets that were given to old age homes.
Being a philanthropist is just one of the many sides of Kgatlana. She also has an outspoken side that comes out in interviews. She is engaging, witty and insightful.
“My outspoken side comes from the need to stand up for myself,” Kgatlana says. “I feel like it’s through the media where we can amplify our voices so that people know our struggles, what we go through, how things can be improved and what kind of support women in sport need, because for a long time we have been told to behave like this, talk like that and dress like this, while no one actually listens to us.”
She goes on: “If you look at sport in the world, women are knocking down barriers. Asisat Oshoala is making a mark on the world stage, showing people that Africa also has talent that needs to be watched. Everyone wants to see women progressing, being recognised for their talent and getting endorsement deals, because we are used to only men getting those things. Caster Semenya is breaking all the records and it’s inspiring. The media is a tool for us as women to ensure that our voices are heard by a bigger audience.”