JOHANNESBURG – Preparation. It is the one word Banyana Banyana trio Janine van Wyk, Linda Motlhalo and Thembi Kgatlana swear by.
Women’s football is still very much a sideshow in South Africa, even the very popular Sasol League remains only a regional league and remains far from scaling the heights of the men’s Premier Soccer League (PSL).
What Van Wyk (31) and Kgatlana (22) have always known was that their passion could only be attended to on a part-time basis – the rest of the time they looked elsewhere to earn a living.
Being older and wiser, Van Wyk, a defender, started to make peace with the idea that local women’s football might not go professional in her playing career.
This was until Vera Pauw, a former Banyana coach, linked her with a move to the Texas-based club Houston Dash.
Kgatlana, a striker, is part of a generation still hoping things will change in the near future.
She had to put her studies – a BA in Tourism through the University of the Western Cape – on hold in order to join Van Wyk in Houston. In the short time they have spent with Pauw, who is now the head coach at Dash, quite a lot has changed concening how and what the duo think about the sport.
“I have moved to a country where they take football really seriously. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is the most competitive league in the world,” says Van Wyk.
Kgatlana and Motlhalo, though, have experience on their side to maximise their time in the NWSL, while although Van Wyk knows her time is limited, she is not letting that get in the way of her dreams.
To say life has completely changed for these three players would be an understatement.
When a Banyana player is profiled, their story reads like the extraordinary tale of Clark Kent and Superman: Someone with a nine-to-five job and a hidden after-hours talent. But the trio have since shed that description.
“This is a career now. I’m not saying the money is unbelievable but I don’t need a second job. Sure, there are still protests about male players earning a lot more and having better incentives, but at least there is a debate about that here,” says Van Wyk.
Kgatlana, who scored her first-ever goal for Houston Dash the day of this interview, agrees.
“It’s amazing to come here to play professional football. Everything here is run well. You get what is promised to you," she said. "The aim is to keep the players happy. The money is better and now we don’t need to hold down two jobs, unless you want to.
“You are a role model. Young girls are looking to you as an influence. Here, you also buy tickets to the stadiums (it has been suggested that all Banyana matches have free entry at stadiums) and it is more professional. Gender inequality is still real in South Africa.
“Our stadiums enjoy good crowds, especially the big teams who get up to 19000 fans a game. It’s amazing to play in front of a crowd like that and know that (the audience has) bought their tickets just to watch us play.”
But will they feel the pressure to carry Banyana at the upcoming Women’s Africa Cup of Nations – to be hosted by Ghana – in November?
The top three national sides will qualify for the World Cup in France next year and this topic has been highly debated.
“For us, we need some sort of preparation. It comes down to international friendlies we need to play. As we speak, the US team has already played six games against high-profile teams and the qualifiers haven’t even started,” says Van Wyk, who is the most capped Banyana player to date.
“It is a really important one for us – and for me personally – to qualify for the World Cup, because it’s something we have never done. Coach Desiree (Ellis) is new but she has been in the set-up her entire life.
“If we prepare well, I don’t see how we won’t qualify. We are often in the top four favourites but we need to play much stronger opponents in our friendly matches to stand a chance.”
Kgatlana also says it’s impossible for her, Van Wyk and Motlhalo to carry the team at the upcoming tournament, simply because they play in the US. “We haven’t camped a lot and we need that to understand each other.”
She says the focus should not be entirely on Ellis, but experienced players also have to step up to the plate to create history in the game:
“I don’t think it’s about the coach. We need players willing to work and fight for what they want. We had Vera and all these players who were big: Amanda Dlamini, Noko Matlou and Portia Modise, but we still didn’t reach a World Cup.
“Can we execute the plan? Can we bond and understand each other? That will be the determining factor.”
* This article was first published in our Women in SPORT magazine.