JOHANNESBURG – The pint-sized Thembi Kgatlana felt like a giant in the presence of African football royalty at the Caf awards in Ghana last week after a conversation with former Banyana Banyana captain Amanda Dlamini calmed her down.
Kgatlana and Noko Matlou collected Banyana’s ‘Women’s National Team of the Year’ award at the event. But the 21-year-old didn’t join Matlou in becoming the only South Africans to be named Africa’s Footballer of the Year, with Matlou having received the accolade in 2009.
Nigerian and Dalian Quanjian forward, Asisat Oshoala, won the award for a third time instead. The Banyana forward, however, returned with her head held up high, greeted by adoring fans at the OR Tambo International airport along with her mother and Dlamini.
“The nomination is an encouragement more than anything, regardless of the fact that I didn’t get the award,” Kgatlana said. “I look at the support that I got from my family, community and my teammates - and I am proud. It has made me eager to start 2018 and continue where I left off last year. I need to push and do better than what I did. This has motivated me to go to the match against Sweden, and those that will follow after, on a high and eager to improve. The standard has been set now and I can’t drop the ball.”
There’s no doubt that the buzz in the Banyana camp when they assemble on Sunday to prepare for their two friendlies against Sweden will be on Kgatlana.
“She is a strong and independent woman who knows what she wants,” Dlamini said. “When we spoke before the awards, I told her that you’re surrounded by these big stars - you’re there for a reason. You are just like them so don’t be afraid of anything
“Her nomination is huge. A lot of us have been playing in the national team for years and we have never accomplished such which means it takes a great individual to be there, someone who exceeds every expectation.”
Dlamini continued: “She deserves it. She has been working really hard. At her age it’s easy to lose track with so many things happening around her. But she has a good head on her shoulders which is why she hasn’t been side-tracked by anything. “This is a massive achievement for her and women’s football in the country and I don’t think that people fully understand it.”
This will be a big year for Banyana.
This month they take on Sweden on the 18th and 21st and next month they will play in the Cyprus Cup. In April they will face either Lesotho or Swaziland in the qualifiers for the Africa Women Cup of Nations (Awcon) qualifiers with a trip to Ghana up for grabs. In Ghana, in the Awcon later this year, Banyana will look to finish in the top three to qualify for the World Cup in France.
Kgatlana will juggle this schedule along with completing her BA degree in tourism.
“I have been a student athlete for a long time,” Kgatlana said. “I am used to this even though it will be tougher this year since I am doing my final year. I know how to balance my football and school. I did it last year where there was also a lot of soccer. I focused and worked hard which is why I earned a nominee for the Caf award.”