Nerves both inhibit and inspire Lebohang Ramalepe

The Banyana Banyana defender reveals what has held her back in her career and why she is confident it will not be an issue at the Fifa Women’s World Cup that kicks off in June.

The fuel that powers Lebohang Ramalepe to be the best rightback in South Africa is also the poison that holds her back from being one of the best players in Africa. The turbo-charged 27-year-old has monopolised the rightback position at Banyana Banyana. She is her only competition and from time to time, she loses the battle with Ramalepe.

“Being in the starting line-up comes with a lot of nerves, every time,” Ramalepe said, sitting in the stands at AW Muller Stadium in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. “You don’t know what to expect.

“You go there with those nerves, but deep down you know that you’re good, which is why you’re in the starting line-up. The confidence then comes back and there’s a small voice in my head that tells me that you are going to do good because you’re good at this thing.”

That small voice also tells Ramalepe that she isn’t good enough. Her battle to block it out when it’s telling her negative things is what’s standing in the way between her being just a good player and greatness. At the moment she is a good player. Once she conquers her inner demons, she’ll be great and will perhaps go down in history as one of the greatest players ever to don the Banyana jersey.

From Ga-Kgapane to Brazil

Nerves dominate Ramalepe’s best and worst moments in a football career that started when she was still in primary school in Ga-Kgapane. The seeds that were planted in the township in Limpopo blossomed in the world’s footballing capital, Brazil, in the 2016 Olympics Games.

“There was a small stadium close to where I grew up. We played there. We would spend the whole day there playing football during the school holidays,” Ramalepe said.

“I enjoyed my time back then. The boys I played with inspired me to continue playing football because at that time we had an A team and a B team. I was always in the B team, until one of the coaches said you’re good enough to play with the big guys in the A team.

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“My mother was very supportive, but we fought a lot. You know that as a girl you’re expected to wash dishes and clean the house. That was a lot of hard work for me, even though I could spend the whole day playing football without getting tired. We used to fight about that. But then she realised that football is my passion and she can’t do anything about it.”

Football eventually became Ramalepe’s career, taking her as far as representing South Africa in major tournaments such as the Olympics and the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations. Seeing her name as one of the 20 players coach Vera Pauw would take to Brazil for the Games brought a sense of pride and fear to Ramalepe. Fear got the better of her in the tournament and she was a shadow of her usual self.

Instead of the buzzing wingback who attacks with confidence and defends with composure, Banyana got a meek Ramalepe who retreated into her shell. She was dropped for the last game against Brazil after two below par performances against Sweden and China.

‘Nerves got the better of me’

“The Olympics were something new to me because I had never played on such a big stage,” Ramalepe said. “It was a big deal. Nerves got the better of me. I wasn’t ready for that level. But then, after realising that I didn’t play all the games at the Olympics and it was my fault, I came back and worked even harder. I am still No. 1 [in my position], which shows that I am doing something right.

“I knew that the world was watching. I hadn’t played in such an environment. I had just played in the All Africa Games, and there wasn’t much pressure there. Everything was going easy for us. But in the Olympics, it’s tougher and all eyes are on you. Even the country expected much from the team. You realise that ke mmereko o montšhi for rena [it’s a lot of work for us]. We had to do our best.”

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If it wasn’t for flu and nerves, the 2016 Olympics would have been her second appearance in the Games, and perhaps she would have been more composed. Ramalepe received her first Banyana call-up in 2011 to be part of a selection camp. She didn’t make the cut.

“I was mad at myself,” Ramalepe said. “I asked myself why did I suddenly get flu in camp when I was fine all this time? But then I realised that the pressure in the camp was too much for me. I couldn’t handle it. Their training sessions were too hard for me.

“That’s when I felt sick. But then I was like, I will try again, and again and again and again until I make it. I knew that it was simple for me to get back. I had to help my team do well. If I did that, we would be in the [Sasol League National] championships and there would be selectors there. I knew that I would be among the best players selected there.”

Briefly quitting football

She did just that in 2013, after moving from Kanatla Ladies to MaIndies. But before moving to MaIndies, where she shared the changing room with Banyana legend Noko Matlou – Ramalepe quit football. MaIndies owner Philemon Mdaka convinced her to give the beautiful game another chance.

“The wait from 2011 to 2013 was a struggle. Banyana Banyana went to the Olympics in 2012. I watched them on TV and I thought, if dilo tša ka di tsamaile sharp [things had worked out for me], I would be there. I told myself that if it’s not my time, it’s not my time. But I knew that on one of the good days, I would make it into the team,” Ramalepe said.

“But while I was confident that I would eventually get a chance, the more time passed, the less confident I was. I quit football. I left home and went to my aunt’s place. I stayed there for some time until the MaIndies guy [Mdaka] recruited me to join his team.

“I quit because I thought that I would never play in the national team. I went there and nothing happened and the team I was playing for [Kanatla] doesn’t qualify for the national championships. It was just a waste. The MaIndies owner had belief in me. He said that I see you in the national team. I told him that’s where I want to be, so joining forces was a no-brainer.”

Mentally robust for the World Cup

Ramalepe ran away with the chance she was given once the Banyana door opened for her in 2013. She is not only a reliable defender but also deadly when going forward, with her skills and pace.

She will earn her 61st cap for Banyana against Jamaica at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban on 7 April. That match will be Banyana’s last on home soil before making their maiden appearance in the Fifa Women’s World Cup, which runs from 7 June to 7 July in France. Their match against Jamaica coincides with the World Cup Trophy Tour, which will be in Durban around the same time.

But before flying to France, Banyana will travel to the United States to face the No. 1 ranked team in the world on home soil. They play the US at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, on 12 May.

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There will be a lot of eyes on Banyana in these matches and during the World Cup, in which they are grouped with footballing giants Germany, China and Spain.

Any nerves or indecision will be heavily punished. Ramalepe is confident she can now channel her nerves in the right direction in a major tournament. She did this well in the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations in Ghana last year, to the point that she was named in the Team of the Tournament.

“Nerves will not get the better of me at the World Cup,” Ramalepe said. “I am older, wiser and more mentally stronger. The fact that we qualified means that we are among the best teams in Africa and the world. You can’t be intimidated by other teams who you’re technically on the same level with – obviously the Fifa rankings say otherwise, but we’re equal on the field. The World Cup has the best teams in the world. We’re one of those teams.”

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