First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
The women’s game is enjoying its greatest period of recognition in world football. Any fan of football knows the names Megan Rapinoe and Marta. South Africa is blessed to have a gem of their own in Thembi Kgatlana.
From Janine van Wyk to Thokozile Mndaweni, the green-and-gold shirt of Banyana Banyana has had its fair share of heavyweights. In the Mohlakeng-born striker, Mzansi has in their possession its first women’s footballing superstar in Kgatlana.
This isn’t to undermine the outstanding achievements of Banyana’s past legends. No one can take away Portia Modise’s 101 international goals in 124 games. The unfortunate neglect by the South African Football Association (Safa), however, meant that they did not use her talents to elevate the status of the women’s game with the efficiency and conviction her career demanded.
Where Safa lacked foresight with Modise, in Kgatlana redemption beckons. Her latest move to Atletico de Madrid Femenino is the stepping stone not only for her but also the status women’s football needs in this country. Fourth-placed Atleti will be a significant upgrade from Eibar, who finished 14th.
Kgatlana’s stunning curling effort versus the Spanish in the 2019 World Cup is etched in South African footballing folklore alongside Siphiwe Tshabalala’s pile driver against the Mexicans in 2010. If that goal enticed Rojiblanco’s curiosity, it must have been her blistering pace to steal the ball from Aissatou Tounkara to score against them in this past league season that got their attention.
Kgatlana’s quality is no surprise to anyone who has followed her career. Ten goals and seven assists in 27 games for struggling Eibar, according to FootyStats, is an outstanding return that was certain to capture the attention of world football’s best women’s teams.
Kgatlana has been expertly brought up through the ranks under the guidance of coaches such as Vera Pauw and incumbent Banyana coach Desiree Ellis.
In February 2021, her coach at Eibar, Iker Dorronsoro, praised her as “a benchmark player for us,” lauding her contributions beyond her goals as someone who is “not selfish, who squeezes, who works a lot without the ball”. These are characteristics that highlight the 25-year-old’s credible attributes as a professional and a person.
Footballers are more than athletes but also role models and excellent marketers. Nompumelelo Nyandeni is Kgatlana’s childhood role model and it is no doubt that her inclusion in a 2010 Fifa health and recreational football campaign along with the likes of Messi and Ronaldo motivated a young Kgatlana.
Amanda Dlamini’s appointment as Safa’s senior manager responsible for commercial and marketing is the cosmic through ball “Project Kgatlana” needs. A Banyana legend in her own right with 105 caps to her name, Dlamini has experienced first-hand the hurdles of being a female footballer in this country. Who better to assist in bridging the gap?
One of Dlamini’s duties in the role will be to identify relevant and meaningful marketing leverage opportunities for commercial partners. Not to say that she ought to work as Kgatlana’s quasi-agent, but intimate rapport should surely be considered. More so in her case as this relationship could serve a greater national interest.
In the past decade alone, SuperSport has broadcast three Fifa Women’s World Cups. Each has shattered reductive stereotypes as the competitiveness of the games and high technical quality of players have shone through.
Increased exposure for Kgatlana could give momentum to a ship that would only lead to the improvement of South African football. She has the X factor to be the poster girl for a generation of female footballers to elevate the game in South Africa.
Perception is key and the sooner Safa can take control of the narrative of women’s football, the better. Who better to cast as the protagonist than Banyana’s first scorer of a Fifa Women’s World Cup goal? She truly is a national treasure. Safa cannot let yet another opportunity slip through its hands. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.