A missed opportunity 15 years ago is the fuel that has driven Noko Matlou to the top of international women’s football. The 33-year-old is now able to see the funny side of that story, even though she was a broken woman because of that incident in 2003.
“I realised that I could go far in football after the LoveLife Games in 2003,” Matlou says. “I was selected to represent Limpopo after that tournament and we went to compete with other provinces in Pretoria. Banyana Banyana’s technical team was there and I was selected from those games by coach Augustine Makalakalane and [Safa assistant technical director] Fran [Hilton-Smith].
“But when I went back home, the phone with the number I gave them was was stolen at training. They [Makalakalane and Hilton-Smith] told me that they were trying to contact me for three years but couldn’t get hold of me. When I realised that my phone was stolen, I cried because that was the only way they could have gotten hold of me. For some time after that I thought that my Banyana Banyana career was over before it even started.
“I made peace with that, even though it was difficult. Some days I would ask the MD of my team [Brazilians Ladies] if he had coach Makalakane’s contacts, but he just told me to be patient and that my day will come.”
Matlou’s day eventually came in 2006. She says: “I bumped into coach Makalakane in 2006 and he recognised me. He said: ‘You’re the girl we spotted in 2003, aren’t you? We’ve been trying to get hold of you.’ I got my first call-up that year and I made my debut against Nigeria. I remember that game vividly. We lost 2-1. I was crushed because I hate losing. But the highlight was playing with my idol, Portia Modise.”
Missing piece of the puzzle
Fast forward to more than a decade later and Matlou is now the idol that many starstruck newbies are excited to rub shoulders with in the senior women’s national team. The forward-turned-defender has three Cosafa Women’s Championship titles, has appeared in two Olympic Games and six Africa Women Cup of Nations (Awcon). She is also the only South African footballer to be named as best on the continent.
Matlou bagged the 2008 Confederation of African Football (Caf) Footballer of the Year award. But there is one missing piece of the puzzle to complete what would be a beautiful picture. “The only thing that’s missing in my career is to go to the World Cup. It would mean a lot to me because if I can go there, I know that I’ll be done with my career,” says Matlou.
Banyana are confident they will finally break that duck and make their World Cup debut next year. They have to finish in the top three in the Awcon in Ghana, which will be played from 17 November to 1 December. Banyana lost 2-1 to Chile on Saturday at Viña del Mar, with their solitary goal coming from Refiloe Jane. They will look to avenge that defeat in Santiago on Tuesday in their second match against Chile as part of their preparations for the continental showpiece they are yet to win.
Banyana have gone backwards in the last two editions of the Awcon since losing in the final to the hosts Equatorial Guinea six years ago. They finished fourth in Cameroon in 2016 and Namibia in 2014 instead of building from their progress on the world stage where they are the only African team to have played in two successive Olympic Games.
“Those near misses have made us grow as a team and as individuals,” says Matlou. “There are disappointments everywhere in life. Disappointments don’t define you; how you bounce back from those disappointments is what defines you. We are now mentally stronger because of those disappointments. They have made us work harder to rectify our mistakes. The most painful moment was in Namibia, when we finished fourth and missed out on an opportunity to go to the World Cup. Just thinking about it is heartbreaking.”
Matlou’s calm demeanour under pressure and experience will be important in Banyana’s quest to book a ticket to France 2019. They need to block the disappointments of the past to ensure that it doesn’t haunt them in what will be a competitive showdown in Ghana. The 33-year-old from Moletjie Gaphaudi in Limpopo is one of four players in the Banyana setup with more than 100 caps. Captain Janine van Wyk (153), Nompumelelo Nyandeni (142) and Nothando Vilakazi (114) complete the quartet.
“It wasn’t an easy journey to get to where I am, especially looking at where I come from. I didn’t think that I would be at Banyana Banyana this long. My work rate and dedication have helped me get this far. I am now five games from reaching 150 caps and that’s a big deal. To think that all of this almost didn’t happen because they stole my phone and I spent three years trying to return to a place I never really went to, is amazing.
“I am still using the sim card I had after losing that phone because I don’t want to miss any other call,” Matlou says with a laugh. “I have made the most of every chance I have received since that moment. That episode showed me that the future is never guaranteed, no matter what, so you have to make the most of the present. That’s what I have been doing since I donned the Banyana jersey for the first time.”