Nompumelelo Nyandeni eyes ticket to France

The Banyana legend has had an illustrious career since her debut at 14. But there is one piece of the puzzle missing and she hopes the World Cup will make her a ‘complete player’.

Nompumelelo “Mbuzi” Nyandeni’s time in Russia with WFC Rossiyanka took her out of her comfort zone and introduced the Banyana Banyana stalwart to a number of firsts. Those firsts were unforgettable. They ranged from making her feel like Lionel Messi to crying on the field and being “hyper” after tasting one of Russia’s famous products.

“I had vodka for the first time when I was in Russia,” Nyandeni said. “When you get to a new team and you’re good and score goals, everyone likes you. I remember, I scored in my first game and I got the woman of the match award. My teammates took me out for drinks to celebrate. They ordered vodka for me. Tjo, I was hyper after that. It was funny.

“They treated us like professionals, they were not strict on us. We’d regularly go out after games to celebrate. Even our coach allowed us to go out, come back, rest and then have a recovery training the following day.”

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That spell was an eye-opener for Nyandeni, coming from a conservative South African football culture where footballers are heavily policed. Drinks after a game was not her only new experience in her new home. The entire journey, from moving there in 2010 to returning to South Africa in 2014, transformed Nyandeni as a footballer and as a person.

“Playing in Russia taught me how to behave like a professional. It was freezing there, but I survived. I remember crying when I played in snow for the first time. But then I reminded myself of the goals I wanted to achieve and I wanted to play overseas. I couldn’t speak the language and they didn’t know how to speak English as well, it was a disaster,” she said with a chuckle.

“I was assigned a translator, but he didn’t come every day. Luckily, they paired me with a roommate, Natasha, who couldn’t speak a word of English and I also couldn’t speak Russian. We had to use signs and Google to communicate, but I am glad they brought us together. After two months, I learned the language. When players from Brazil and Cameroon came to the team, I became a translator for them,” she added.

Rejection as fuel

Being rejected by Arsenal in 2013 was the catalyst for her move to Russia. She vowed that she would go back to Europe and make a name for herself. She did that with Rossiyanka, a club that gave her a chance to play in the Uefa Women’s Champions League.

Nyandeni is one of five South African players to take part in the tournament. Busisiwe Ndimeni, Leandra Smeda, Tshepiso Mokabane and Andisiwe Mgcoyi are the other players who have had a taste of this competition.

“When you play in the Champions League, you can feel that you are a true professional. The treatment given is that of professionals. The crowds in the stadium and the vibe, it made me think that’s probably how the likes of Messi feel when they play in the competition,” she said.

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Playing in the Champions League meant she missed out on the 2010 edition of the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in South Africa. The experience she gained in Russia was worth her missing the competition in which Banyana finished second. Her only regret is that women’s football in Africa still doesn’t have the equivalent of the Uefa Women’s Champions League.

“Janine [van Wyk, Banyana Banyana captain] and I were talking about it the other day, asking ourselves when it would come to Africa,” Nyandeni said. “It would be nice, you can see that we are growing in Africa. We would get experience and not only in Banyana. It would be great one day to be able to play against Nigerian players at club level.”

Banyana, Nigeria and Cameroon have an opportunity to show how far Africa has progressed in women’s football when they represent the continent in the Fifa World Cup to be staged in France from 7 June to 7 July. The World Cup is the only tournament in which Nyandeni hasn’t yet featured.

Long servant of her country

The 31-year-old from Emalay’nini in Dennilton, Limpopo, made her first Banyana appearance as a 14-year-old. That was 17 years ago. There are plenty of players who have come and gone in the team while Nyandeni has stood the test of time. Nyandeni, Van Wyk, Nothando Vilakazi and Noko Matlou are the longest-serving members of the current Banyana squad.

“I’ve been serving the country for all my life. I’m happy that we’ve finally qualified for the Fifa Women’s World Cup,” she said with a proud smile.

It’s easy to miss Nyandeni in the group of Banyana players when they are not on the field. This is not because of her small frame, but because she hardly ever draws the limelight on herself. Her sharp and carefree laughter, though, is unmissable.

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Like many young footballers, Nyandeni dreamt of representing her country at the highest level. That dream came early for her and she couldn’t believe it when former coach, Gregory Mashilo, called her up for the first time. Banyana were going to play Zambia in an African Women’s Championship (now called Women’s Afcon) qualifier in Lusaka.

“I couldn’t believe that I was now going to play with Portia Modise and Veronica Phewa. But then I thought to myself that we are all girls and we all have both legs, then it shouldn’t be difficult,” she recalled.

She hasn’t looked back since. Football has done so much for Nyandeni, even taking her to countries she never dreamt she would visit. Her proudest moment came when she bought her mother a house in Thokoza in Ekurhuleni. She also renovated their family home in Dennilton and added a few back rooms.

Secret to her longevity

“I’m lucky that I have been in Banyana for so long. I always tell the young players that they need to remain humble and respect other people, too. I tell them that if they think they are bigger than the game, they will not survive. At the end of the day, umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (a person is a person because of other people). Even when fans ask for pictures, you have to oblige and shouldn’t tell them you’re in a hurry. You have to make time,” she said.

Qualifying for this year’s World Cup was emotional for Nyandeni, more so because she was part of the team that narrowly missed going to the 2015 edition in Canada.

“If you remember, we were beaten by Ivory Coast in the third and fourth [place] play-offs,” she said. “We were all heartbroken. Other players said they will quit football, but I told myself that one day we will qualify. It didn’t matter when that would be, but I believed we would. When we went to Ghana last year, the aim of every player was to qualify. For us old players, we felt like it was the last chance for us to qualify and we had to stick together.

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“I was really happy when we qualified, but then I also remembered that I have to work extra hard to be in the final squad for the World Cup. I didn’t go crazy with the celebrating, but in the back of my mind there’s that thing that I need to work hard because it would be pointless qualifying for the World Cup and not make the squad.

“Playing in the World Cup would mean the world to me. I played in the Olympics, AWC [Women’s Afcon], Uefa… the only thing missing is the World Cup. Then I would be a complete player, I just need to make the final squad.”

Should Nyandeni make the World Cup squad, she could go there as a member of an illustrious club. Mbuzi is one match away from joining the 150-caps club, whose members include Van Wyk and Matlou. Banyana’s friendly against world champions the United States on 12 May at Levi’s Stadium in California might be Nyandeni’s crowning moment. Banyana will conclude their World Cup preparations with a friendly against Norway on 2 June in France, before starting their campaign against Spain in Le Havre six days later.

As someone who has seen many firsts, her experience in Banyana’s first World Cup will come in handy. Nyandeni is not only a model professional on the pitch, she is also an inspirational figure off it. She has and plans to continue inspiring the youth from her village beyond her playing years.

“I tell them that they mustn’t see me as a celebrity, I’m not one,” Nyandeni said. “We’re all human. I have to keep humble at all times. They are happy for me and what I’ve achieved. I’m happy that I’m representing my province well.”

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