There are two sides of Banyana Banyana attacking midfielder Thembi Kgatlana that are constantly at war with each other, with one trying to outdo the other.
But she controls both sides with grace. Neither side overpowers the other. The 21-year-old is constantly in control, allowing one side to take over when the occasion deems it fit. She is arrogant on the field, doesn’t respect anyone when the ball is at her feet, and more than capable of embarrassing any opponent with her skills and pace.
But she is humility personified off the field, arguing that Mohlakeng - a township on the West Rand of Johannesburg, where she grew up - keeps her grounded. This year she started hosting what will be an annual Thembi Kgatlana Tournament
The people of Mohlakeng have been very cool about seeing one of their own nominated for the biggest prize in African football, Caf's Footballer of the Year award. Kgatlana will battle it out with Cameroon’s Gabrielle Aboudi Onguene and the favourite to win the award for the third time, Asisat Oshoala of Nigeria.
“I honestly didn’t think I'd make the final three,” Kgatlana said. “I have always thought that for you to be nominated for a Caf award, you need to have done something amazing and you must have something that makes you special.”
This is her humble side speaking. When she is pushed on whether she thinks she doesn’t have something that makes her special, she is quick to answer: “I do! It’s not a fluke that I am nominated for this award. This has been a very good year for me. I have won six individual awards this year. It shows there is no substitute for hard work. I won the Cosafa Cup and I was named the Player of the Tournament. I scored four goals there, one goal short of my target of five. I feel everything that I have done until this point, I can only get better. Being nominated for this award is positive reinforcement, showing me that I am doing good and I need to keep doing what I have been doing, if not more.”
Kgatlana will start the year in Ghana, for the Caf awards on January 4 in Accra, and end it there for the Africa Women Cup of Nations (AWC) that will run from November 17 - December 1. Kgatlana would take not returning with the Caf award over returning with a medal with Banyana Banyana. The top three teams at the AWC will represent the continent in the World Cup in France.
“It would mean a lot to go to the World Cup. I have been to two AWCs. I have been to the Olympics. I have won the Cosafa Cup. Playing in the World Cup would be the highlight of my career. It would open doors for many players to go abroad and take their careers to the next level. It could also be the impetus many corporates need to sponsor women’s football and grow it.”
Kgatlana’s rise has been remarkable. She is only in her third year as a Banyana player in a football journey that started as an eight-year-old. Her first team was Napoli FC, an all-boys team whose graduates include Oupa Manyisa. Parma Ladies, her first all-girls team, took her career to the next level thanks to her participation in the Dana Cup in Denmark. She was called up to the national Under-17 team after that, graduated to the Under-20 and then Banyana with a stint at the High Performance Centre along the way before she joined University of the Western Cape.
“It’s been an amazing journey, and this is just the start.”