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Strike a Rock: The story of a Banyana Banyana star Thembi Kgatlana

FILE - Thembi Kgatlana. Photo: Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix

FILE - Thembi Kgatlana. Photo: Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix

Published Jul 17, 2021


CAPE TOWN - BANYANA Banyana’s well-travelled superstar striker Thembi Kgatlana has been very active of late. In between joining Spanish giants Atletico Madrid, she has also released her book Strike a Rock: The Story of Thembi Kgatlana.

Written by Nikolaos Kirkinis, it focuses not only on Kgatlana’s football journey that has taken her from Mohlakeng to the US, China, Portugal and now Spain, but provides an inspirational tale about hope, defeating the odds and defying stereotypes. Independent Media’s Zaahier Adams caught up with Kgatlana this past week for an exclusive interview.

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How do you feel about joining a club of the stature of Atletico Madrid?

I won't lie. It is amazing. Women's football is growing in Africa, and we are looking for these opportunities to get to the top. It is something that doesn't only inspire me, but inspires the next girl that wishes to play in Europe. Through me it is possible for them to see that they are able to go play wherever they want. They can follow their dreams if they put in the effort and be consistent with what they are doing.

Having joined Atletico from fellow Spanish team Eibar FC, how would you rate the standard of the Primera Division Femenina?

The standard in Spain is very high. They have the Primera Division and Segunda División Pro, and that strengthens the league. We have teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Valencia … we have now also seen Villareal qualifying to play in the Primera Division. There are plenty of male teams now investing in women's football and that really makes the league strong because they have the funds, the resources, whatever is needed to play football at the highest level. We have seen Real Madrid come in the first year and qualify for the Champions League. You never see such things happen, in fact you dream of such things in your country. We have seen Barca going on to win the league unbeaten. They have dominated the Champions League too and we can see they are currently the European Women's champions. This will ensure that the Primera Division will only get stronger here because all the best foreign and local players will be acquired.

South Africa’s women’s football systems are not this advanced. What was your source of motivation to get to where you are now?

Yes, it was tough because I didn't grow up with these opportunities in front of me. I couldn’t say I wanted to be a professional footballer. But when I started playing for the national team, and going on to qualify for the Junior World Cup and Fifa World Cup, I think that’s when the dream started becoming closer. It was quite difficult for me at the start, but I realised when Portia Modise went to Europe … when she went to Denmark … and I was playing with her during the early stages of my career … I think that was the glimpse of light that I needed to know that I can make a career out of football.

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Do you now feel the expectation of being a role model to aspiring young South African women’s footballers?

It is tough because I'm trying to be Thembi and follow my dreams, but at home they are looking at me and wanting to be me. They follow me on the road when I go back home, especially all the small kids. But what I don’t want is for people to say “I want to be like Thembi” and then they start idolising me. At the end of the day, they have their own dreams. The way I fulfilled my dreams is different to the way they are going to fulfil theirs. For me, it was difficult to be a professional player because there weren’t many opportunities. But for them it could be different because of the opportunities that I, and the people before me, have created. It should also be easier because we now have a professional league in South Africa. It should be easier for them to get closer to their dreams. We had to jump from country to country to get these opportunities. For people on the outside it’s easy to say “I want to be like Thembi” but it demands a lot from that person who says they want to be like me. Opportunities are there, but you need to work hard to get that opportunity to come your way.

You enjoyed a fruitful career playing in the US, which is regarded as the cradle of women’s football. Is the passion for the game really that big out there?

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Yes, America invests in women’s football. And they are still doing it to show that their league is tops and sets itself apart. They have created a system where the US Football Federation contracts the senior players of the national team, and they will pay your monthly salary. It is therefore easier for teams locally to acquire other quality players with their own money. It also ensures that say in our case, that five Banyana players don’t all play for one team. It ensures that the league is strong and that there is not just one powerful team. In the US, they have a structure that divides all the national team players. This creates good competition within the league. The team lying bottom can beat the team on top. It is very competitive. We are very far from that here in South Africa.

And what about China? And Portugal?

In China it’s completely different. There it’s the government that provides the money to acquire the best players to raise the standards in China. In Portugal, they also have resources. I played for a big club Benfica. In each country it’s different.

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How does Banyana compete on the international stage against teams with such an abundance of resources?

To be honest it is difficult. But at the end of the day we are all looking for opportunities. I wouldn’t be Thembi if it wasn’t for Banyana Banyana. I wouldn’t be playing for Atletico if it wasn’t for Banyana. A lot of the girls in the country look at Banyana as the path to their future. So, if you can make it to Banyana then you are closer to realising your dreams. It is not guaranteed, but you are closer. If you go to the Fifa World Cup, there is a guarantee that teams will see you. If you go to Afcon, the Olympics, all the major tournaments … teams will see you. You want to be part of Banyana Banyana teams that are participating in major tournaments.

Banyana coach Desiree Ellis is a pioneer of South Africa’s women’s football. What is your relationship with her?

The career of coach Des tells us everything about the person she is. She played football when there were no opportunities. These are the people that we look up to. There were a lot of Banyana players that played when things were impossible. People like coach Des came into women’s football to guide the girls … not in terms of where she came from … but rather about letting them know about the opportunities available. We need people like coach Des and others that played with her to guide the girls within the national league. They need that motivation. She has been doing a great job with Banyana, winning back-to-back awards in terms of CAF Coach of the Year, and that shows that her work is being taken in by a group of players that want to learn and want to be better players.

What would you still like to achieve in your career?

To be honest, I like to take one step at a time. I’m joining Atletico … they are a great team. It is the next level of my career. I don’t want to say I want to score 20 goals and then I don’t do it and it comes back to haunt me. I’m just going there to enjoy myself. To see what I can learn and where I can improve.

With Banyana, it’s different. We are not going to the Olympics and that’s something we need to learn from. We need to start looking at qualifying for Afcon and forget about the Olympics disappointment. We need to start on a clean slate. We have a bigger objective, which is to go to the Fifa World Cup the second time. It is not going to be easy. Everyone wants to push Banyana around, but with the players that we have … getting contracts overseas … it is going to be interesting.

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