Halfway through our interview, Simphiwe Dludlu, 31, briefly exudes a childlike exuberance. Her face lights up, she puts her hands on her cheeks; she has the look of a love-sick teenager, she speaks in an excited voice. If her feet weren’t restricted by the table in front of her at the Protea Hotel by Marriott in Roodepoort, Johannesburg, they would have stamped the floor excitedly.
The cause for this sudden change? The coach of the South African Under-17 women’s national team, Bantwana, is on a stroll down memory lane, reminiscing about her first pair of football boots.
“My late grandfather bought them for me,” Dludlu remembers. “He bought me a [pair of] black [Adidas] Grand Prix’s. Oh my! It was the most exciting time of my life. I think I even slept in those boots because that’s how excited I was.”
Like most footballers from townships, Dludlu started playing barefoot and graduated to takkies and then school shoes before her grandfather bought those boots for her. They laid the foundation for her Banyana Banyana career, which saw her earn 63 caps and captain the side before hanging up her boots in 2015 to venture into coaching. Her relationship with boots is intimate – she started a foundation named after her to equip girls with the tools they need to achieve their dreams, including giving them proper boots.
But before she began her Banyana career, her home in Alexandra was broken into and her boots stolen. But she didn’t let the incident faze her. “Everybody knows Alex as one of those rough townships and all of that. I was in it – I felt it and I saw it. But I grew through it,” Dludlu says.
“It has always been my motivation … to go further in life. I knew what it felt like to grow up in Alex and I didn’t want to go back to that. I didn’t want to have kids one day who would go back to that. I wanted to be able to say: ‘How do I get others out of that, without forgetting where we come from?’ Growing up in Alex was amazing. I played football in the streets. I played all sorts of indigenous games there. I walked to school. I grew up in Alex when there was no electricity. I was there when we had electricity and other developments. I saw my township become bigger and better, crazier as well. It shaped me to be the woman that I am today. The diverse person I am is because of Alex.”
After her boots were stolen, a teammate of Dludlu’s at Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies came to her rescue, lending the former Banyana Banyana defender her boots so she could honour her call-up to the national team. That story is emblematic of Dludlu’s journey so far: she has been able to overcome her obstacles with the help of a solid support structure and the resilience to never to give up, even when times are tough.
“My grandfather used to come and watch me play, even at training,” Dludlu says. “I would hear him coming from far. He would scream my name … It’s just painful for me that he never saw me play for Banyana Banyana but I know wherever he is, he is proud knowing that he planted this seed. My mom has been my biggest supporter. Every game I played for Banyana, she watched, and came to the matches she could. She might not have come on time, but I knew at the end that she would be there, watching. She has been my rock every step of my life – from being a child, to a player, starting out as a coach, being a mom and where I am right now. She has been there all the way.”
A Banyana first
On the night of 13 November, at 10pm South African time, Dludlu will step into Estadio Domingo Burgueño in Uruguay for the biggest moment of her coaching career: she will become the first former Banyana player to manage a national team in a World Cup. Bantwana start their campaign against Mexico, followed by Japan on 16 November and then Brazil on 20 November in their last group match.
“The feeling of being the first former Banyana player to lead a national team in a World Cup is surreal,” Dludlu says. “If I were chasing accolades, I would be excited about this. But that’s not who I am. I see myself as a continuation of those who have been there before me. They didn’t fail. They paved the way for me. Coach Maude Khumalo [Dludlu’s assistant and Under-20 coach] was the head coach of the Under-17s in 2016. She did some groundwork before I took over in 2018. I was there helping. I learned a lot during that time.”
Dludlu continues, “This achievement is for all other former footballers who are in coaching education and have aspirations of seeing women’s football go to the next level. I do take it as an achievement. It doesn’t come every day and I am not going to shy away and be always modest about it and say: ‘Nah, it’s not a big deal.’ It is a big deal! It’s motivation for me. There are so many critics out there. There are so many things that might go wrong. If certain things are going right for me, I have to embrace them because those are the things that will make me work even harder to break those boundaries.”
Exorcising the demons of Trinidad and Tobago
One of the barriers Dludlu’s team must break is to register their first win in the global showpiece. Bantwana’s class of 2010, led by coach Solly Luvhengo, was humbled in Trinidad and Tobago, when the side conceded 17 goals in three matches, losing 3-1 to South Korea, 10-1 to Germany and 4-0 to Mexico. Jermaine Seoposenwe, who is now a key figure in the senior women’s national team, scored Bantwana’s two consolation goals.
Bantwana of 2018 were the first team to arrive in Uruguay to get used to the conditions and play a few friendlies before the tournament kicks off. They feel more equipped than their counterparts in 2010, even though their match against Botswana in December last year, in the first round of the qualifiers, was their first as a collective, with most of the players tasting international football for the first time. But they grew in composure and self-belief during their qualifying matches, securing their place in the World Cup with a 6-1 aggregate win over Morocco in Spain.
Dludlu’s best trait as a coach is probably how she manages her players. There’s a strong emphasis on education and unity. She jokes, dances and even celebrates with her players when they score. She has walked the path her players are on. She knows the pitfalls they need to avoid to stay in the game. But she doesn’t yet know what it’s like to play at a World Cup.
“Sometimes what you’re working towards might not pay off now, but later on in life it does. This is the reward of the hard work I put in as a player … It gives me great pleasure that even though I didn’t qualify for the World Cup as a player, I have done so as a coach. Qualifying with the team as a coach is also fulfilling because now I am wiser [than the] young woman I was at Banyana Banyana.”