Sport

ANOTHER LEVEL

Firing with the ‘big guns’ — Nicole Michael on her rise up the South African soccer ranks

Firing with the ‘big guns’ — Nicole Michael on her rise up the South African soccer ranks
Nicole Michael of TS Galaxy Queens during a Hollywoodbets Super League match against Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies at Lucas Moripe Stadium in Pretoria on 6 December 2023. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

The Banyana Banyana starlet is making a name for herself through perseverance. And at just 23, she still has much more to offer.

The name Nicole Michael is one that close followers of South African women’s football have been acquainted with for a few years now. However, it was in 2023 that she became a major talking point.

Michael, who plays as an attacker and can be deployed wide or centrally, caught the eye in the colours of Banyana Banyana first at the 2023 Cosafa Women’s Championship. Then she played a pivotal part as South Africa booked their spot at the 2024 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon), which is set to take place in Morocco.

The Confederation of African Football is yet to announce the dates for the tournament. Defending champions Banyana Banyana are one of the 12 teams that have qualified.

Michael helped to make this possible by scoring her first goal for the senior side as they beat Burkina Faso 3-1 on aggregate in the final round of qualifying in December 2023, thereby booking their ticket to what will be a tough and thrilling title defence.

Wonderful experience

Speaking to Daily Maverick, the TS Galaxy Queens forward shared what it was like adjusting to the demands at Banyana Banyana, compared with the pressures of the semiprofessional domestic league – the Hollywoodbets Super League.

“I was nervous because I was now with the big guns. But it was a nice and good experience. The intensity was high. Everything was on another level from what we play at. Hollywoodbets and the national team are two different levels. But it’s been a good experience,” Michael said.

From the onset, the Riverlea born and raised footballer showed her qualities and was not overawed by the stage she found herself on, thanks to her displays at club level. Her performances also saw her nominated for Fans’ Player of the Season in the Super League awards at the culmination of last season.

This followed a season in which she netted 14 times in 29 games to help her club to finish fourth in the 16-team national league. 

By that time she had firmly proven that she was someone who Banyana Banyana coach Desiree Ellis and her technical team could rely on – now and in the future.

“My first start for Banyana Banyana, during the Wafcon qualifiers, the coaches told me… that I’d worked really hard to be here. So, I must just be myself. Not be nervous and do what I know,” Michael told Daily Maverick.

Faster than Superman

So what exactly does the starlet bring to the table? Well, for one, she is faster than Superman on his way to save Lois Lane. In addition, she has a bag full of tricks that usually leave her opponents in a daze.

Michael’s style has been honed for more than a decade, first on the streets of Riverlea township, then later for local clubs such as Goretti, Da Boys and Eindhoven. These are all within the jurisdiction of the Jowest Local Football Association, which also caters for clubs from Westbury.

Nicole Michael

Nicole Michael of TS Galaxy Queens in action against Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies at Lucas Moripe Stadium in Pretoria on 6 December 2023. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

Both Riverlea and Westbury are plagued by recurring gun violence and other crimes. Sport is one of the healthy escapes from this. For Michael, seeing her three older brothers playing football on the streets, as well as in various local clubs, planted a seed that she too could pursue the sport.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Banyana Banyana

Because of her love for athletics at the time, it’s a seed that she would not regularly tend to and water until the age of 12. This is when she truly fell in love with the game.

Ironically, her older brothers do not play football any more. She, on the other hand, has taken the baton and is sprinting towards etching her name in South African football history one dribble at a time, one assist and goal at a time.

Michael said it was not easy to kick-start her pursuit. 

“I had to make a decision on my own, that I wanted to be a professional footballer. I had to leave Riverlea,” said Michael, who has played for the likes of Bloemfontein Celtic Ladies, Royal AM and the University of Johannesburg on the elite level of South African women’s football.

“But it’s tough. Especially when there’s no women’s team. Because where do you start? Hopefully one day it will change. Hopefully I can be part of that change,” the 23-year-old added.

Nicole Micheal during a Cosafa Women’s Championship match between South Africa and Malawi at Lucas Moripe Stadium in Pretoria on 4 October 2023. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

Olympic dream

She says that since she became a regular fixture in the senior national setup she has been made to feel welcome by the entire Banyana team.

During this time Michael has formed a healthy bond with super striker Thembi Kgatlana. The pair have an almost telepathic understanding on the field and in recent months they have combined for crucial goals as Banyana bid to qualify for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

“Thembi is the one [teammate] who motivates me the most. Even after games she comes and speaks to me. She tells me that I should not give up… Also, Linda [Motlhalo]. She’s humble and hardworking. She’s also an inspiration,” Michael stated.

Michael’s contribution will be important with Banyana Banyana just two games away from qualifying for the Games. They face old foes Nigeria in a two-legged qualifier at the beginning of April.

Playing in the Olympics would be an important chapter in the story of Michael. As would representing South Africa at Wafcon. She hopes she can tick both boxes in 2024, in order to build on the successes of 2023. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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