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Thembi Kgatlana well on her way to becoming a celebrated African sporting great

Thembi Kgatlana well on her way to becoming a celebrated African sporting great
Thembi Kgatlana of Banyana Banyana during her squad's Women's World Cup match against the Netherlands on 6 August, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo: Daniela Porcelli/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

Still just 27 years old, Banyana Banyana forward Thembi Kgatlana is already one of the most influential South African sports stars of all time.

South Africa has produced a plethora of sports stars who have left indelible marks, both in their area of expertise, as well as in broader society.

It includes the likes of Bafana Bafana’s all-time top goal scorer Benni McCarthy (who is now employed by Manchester United), as well as Leeds United cult hero and former captain Lucas Radebe.

In the pool, the contributions of Chad Le Clos are swimmingly cemented, while on the tennis court — doubles wheelchair Grand Slam winner Kgothatso Montjane is showing that impossible is a state of mind.

History maker

Firmly on her way to creating a legacy that may match or dwarf the aforementioned superstars when it ends is 27-year-old Banyana Banyana forward Thembi Kgatlana.

The American-based super striker — who was recently part of the farewell match of another extremely influential sportsperson, USA’s Megan Rapinoe — already boasts an impressive CV.

Banyana Banyana lost that double-header against the USA in the US — felled 3-0 and 2-0 respectively.

Thembi Kgatlana

Thembi Kgatlana jumps over Alyssa Naeher of USA at TQL Stadium on 21 September, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo: Michael Hickey/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

However, it was an opportunity for the team to dust off their cobwebs. Having not been in action since their historic Fifa World Cup campaign Down Under. During the tournament, they reached the round of 16 for the first time in history, in just their second World Cup.

With their efforts in Australia and New Zealand, they became the first South African senior soccer side to reach the World Cup knockout stage. Front and centre of that was Kgatlana.

In 2019, the striker became the first Banyana player to score on the World Cup stage. Though she would have been disappointed by the side’s group phase exit. In 2023, she added two more goals to that tally. Becoming the joint top African scorer of all-time at the tournament.

As it stands, she is tied with players such as Nigeria and Barcelona star striker Asisat Oshoala. As well as Rita Nwadike (also of Nigeria) and Cameroonians Gaëlle Enganamouit, Gabrielle Onguéné and Ajara Nchout. All have netted three World Cup goals. 

In 2018 she also became just the second South African to be crowned as the African Women’s Footballer of the Year. Following in the footsteps of another Banyana heavyweight — Noko Matlou. The latter paved the way for Kgatlana when she won it 2008.

The gong was a reward for Kgatlana’s stellar showing at the 2018 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon) — where her silky skills and pin-point finishing helped Banyana Banyana reach the final. Before being downed by Nigeria on penalties.    

Nevertheless, the South African striker was recognised for her valiant effort in the tournament, where she finished as top scorer (with five goals) and was also awarded the Player of the Tournament accolade.

Thembi Kgatlana

Thembi Kgatlana during the Women’s World Cup at Sydney Football Stadium on 6 August, 2023. (Photo: Fred Lee/Getty Images)

Globe trotter

Kgatlana — born in Mohlakeng, a township located on the outskirts of Gauteng — has firmly established herself as one of Africa’s best soccer exports to date.

She has mesmerised supporters of teams such as Houston Dash, Beijing BG Phoenix, Benfica, Eibar, Atlético Madrid and now American side Racing Louisville.

If she impresses the American side, which backed her talent even after she suffered an achilles injury that kept her out for months in 2022, she may soon find herself donning the colours of one of the English sides before she hangs up her boots in the very distant future.   

“I don’t see what I’m doing as ‘playing’. Some might think I’m crazy when I say this. But what I mean is that I choose to view football as a job. It’s a job I choose to do to the best of my ability,” Kgatlana has said in the past.

“The income I get from my contracts with these professional teams has allowed me to take care of my parents back in South Africa and has opened up opportunities for them as well.”

Thembi Kgatlana

Thembi Kgatlana in action during the Women’s World Cup against the Netherlands. (Photo: Daniela Porcelli/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

Of course, she has also been an avid advocate for South Africa to finally professionalise the game. With many players in the local Hollywoodbets Super League still juggling playing soccer with jobs that financially sustain them, their development as athletes is hindered.

“The girls playing in the Hollywoodbets Super League — how many of them have contracts? You have to have a contract in order to be paid,” said Kgatlana earlier this year.

“A lot of these girls are discouraged. They have to choose between going to school and work or playing football.”

The forward, who made the Forbes Africa 30 under-30 list earlier this year for her contribution to the game and overall influence, also has two books out.

The first — titled Strike a Rock and written by Nikolaos Kirkinis — is a biography of Kgatlana’s rise to the top. It was published in 2021.

In early 2023, Kgatlana co-authored Girls Don’t Do That with Kirkinis. In this children’s book, the diminutive forward — who grew up playing soccer with boys — dares little girls to dream, in spite of the naysayers surrounding them.  

After all, she managed to block out the noise and is doing it at the moment, making sure she will leave behind an unshakeable legacy when she departs. DM 

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