The death of Palace Super Falcons

The most successful club in South African women’s football is no more. It’s an indictment of the state of the women’s game, which is battling poor funding, a lack of support and too few development structures.

“Football can kill you, a real death. You can die because of football,” goes the famous but comical quote by former Baroka FC coach Kgoloko Thobejane. The “death” Thobejane was speaking about is caused by many things, from poor results to the fall from grace of gigantic institutions.

But “death” in football is more permanent when great clubs cease to exist. The pain becomes more unbearable than having had a bad season, which can be rectified in the following campaign.

In the history of South African football, there are a lot of clubs with rich histories that disappeared for various reasons. Manning Rangers, Soweto Ladies, Tembisa Classic and African Wanderers are some of those that remain a distant memory in the minds of many football fans.

“The trophies are all that I am left with,” said the dejected former chair of the now defunct Palace Super Falcons, Bob Maredi. “What am I going to do with them? They don’t mean anything to me anymore.”

All that’s left of Falcons are the glorious memories the club created and the rich legacy it left in women’s football in South Africa. The trophies that decorate Maredi’s cabinet include the Vodacom and Sasol League National Championship crowns.

The Rabie Ridge team are the most successful side in the history of the Sasol League, having won the national championships three times in a row. Maredi was forced to sell the club’s Gauteng Sasol League status just a week before the season started this year. Selling the status to Kempton Park Ladies was the only way to ensure that players from Tembisa, Midrand and Rabie Ridge can still be part of the Sasol League.

“When it was announced that a new professional league is coming, I thought they would look at our history and contribution to women’s football, and add us to the list of teams in the league,” he said.

Feeling the financial pinch

Trouble began last year when the Palace Group, which sponsored the team, reduced the funds meant to finance the Falcons. This meant that the players could no longer receive the monthly stipends they were used to earning.

“Most of the players were motivated by money and when that stopped, things changed. It even showed in their body language that things were no longer the same. We could only give them money for transport to training and games,” explained Maredi.

The lack of sponsorship and support for women’s football means that owners always have to dip their hands into their own pockets to run the clubs. This is usually not sustainable, because the same owners also have to take care of their families and other personal needs.

Sasol has been in bed with the South African Football Association (Safa) for more than 10 years, supporting and sponsoring women’s football. The petroleum company came on board when corporates such as Vodacom, Sanlam and Absa pulled out and stopped sponsoring the women’s game.

The proposed women’s national league, which is meant to kick off in August, still hasn’t secured sponsorship. Former minister of sport and recreation Tokozile Xasa pledged R5 million to help kick-start the league when it does eventually launch. But the R5 million will be split over three years and is nowhere near the R20 million to R40 million Safa said it would need each season to run the league successfully.

Problems that cripple growth

“It [death of teams] doesn’t start with Falcons. Soweto Ladies, which produced a lot of players for Banyana, is also dead and people have forgotten about it. Women’s football is not looked after. Sasol is doing its best, but we need something else to sustain women’s football. Teams are neglected in the townships. Women’s football teams are dying,” said former Banyana Banyana coach Joseph Mkhonza.

A lack of sponsorship is only part of the problem. More crippling to the growth of women’s football in South Africa is the lack of proper development structures. Most school leagues don’t cater for girls’ football. This leads to a number of girls either giving up or looking for boys’ teams that can accommodate them.

“The development of women’s football in the country doesn’t exist. We have to focus on players when they are Under-11 and 13. How can you develop a player that is 17 years old? That’s already too late,” explained the first coach to qualify with Banyana for the Olympic Games.

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In the 25 years since Banyana’s first match, there has been only one dedicated high performance centre to cater for teenage girls. The centre at the University of Pretoria houses just 25 players and, over the years, has served as a feeder to the various national teams. It has produced players such as Nothando Vilakazi, Busisiwe Ndimeni, Mamello Makhabane, Janine van Wyk and Linda Motlhalo, who are part of the Banyana Banyana squad for the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup.

A single high performance centre is not sufficient to cater for the country’s needs, which leads to many players falling through the cracks.

“There is talent in abundance in the country but it is not nurtured. The only players that are looked after are those that are placed at the HPC [high performance centre]. There need to be centres like the HPC in all the provinces in the country, where the players will get a chance to be trained consistently at a high level, in the different age groups,” said Mkhonza.

Improving the women’s football chain

However, Mkhonza warned that having only nine such centres across the country would not be enough. There also needs to be a structure that takes care of university players.

The proposed national league has brought excitement that the country is taking a step in the right direction, which will eventually lead to women earning a living as footballers in South Africa. If there is no proper plan to sustain and grow the teams though, the league will end up being monopolised by clubs that have resources, such as universities, Bloemfontein Celtic Ladies and Gauteng teams.

“Do the teams that have qualified for the national league have junior teams? What will happen to those clubs when the current players become too old to play?” asked Mkhonza.

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The concern that South Africa doesn’t invest in nurturing its junior players can be seen in the World Cup squad doing duty in France. Only two players that played in the 2010 Fifa Under-17 Women’s World Cup are part of the Banyana team that’s appearing in their first global tournament.

Jermaine Seoposenwe and Kaylin Swart were promoted to the senior team after playing in Trinidad and Tobago nine years ago, and have been donning the green and gold consistently. Jabulile Mazibuko, Rachel Sebati, Kelso Peskins, Shiwe Nogwanya and Robyn Moodaly are the only other players who have played for Banyana in recent years but haven’t done enough to stake a regular berth.

Better care of the youth

“We should have built from the players that played in the 2010 World Cup. Some of the players in the team are now old. Where are we going to get players when we neglect to develop the young players? Now that we have qualified for this World Cup, are we going to qualify for the next one? This is why we need to export more players and this should be done when they are young, just like Linda [Motlhalo] and Thembi [Kgatlana, who are both based in China],” said Mkhonza.

Banyana Banyana coach Desiree Ellis introduced young players like Sibulele Holweni, Karabo Dhlamini and Mapaseka Mpuru to the squad she took to the World Cup. The experience they will gain in France will put the team in a better position when they have to take over from veterans who retire after the tournament.

Safa has shown interest in hosting the 2023 Women’s World Cup by forwarding a bid to Fifa, but the South African governing body also needs to clean its house so that the country is represented on and off the field. The teams that qualified for the national league have been sitting idle since the National Championships in Kimberley last year. Safa has struggled to get sponsors to fund the league, but hopefully Banyana’s appearance at the World Cup will change this as the league will give life to women’s football and revive the spirits of those who have been “killed” by previous disappointments.

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