Thembi Kgatlana, the 23 year-old African Women’s Footballer of the Year, has just finished one of her final training sessions before the Women’s World Cup kicks off in France and is still pinching herself that it’s really happening.
THE JOURNEY TO THE WORLD CUP
“For me, it’s been quite an overwhelming journey.. Even when I’m in France, I’m still living the dream that I made it with the team of South Africa that qualified for the first time…. I’ll always cherish this moment. There are other players in the team who have had to wait 18-20 years to qualify for a World Cup”.
The journey began when Thembi first played on her local pitch, being greeted by whistles from the watching crowd as it was so unusual for a girl to play. Reflecting on this, she remembers that “It was difficult for a girl to be accepted to play soccer… Even though I got all the rejection, even though people didn’t want me and people didn’t give me a sense of belonging, I kept on going and going until I made myself comfortable in sports”.
BEING AN AFRICAN WOMAN IN FOOTBALL
This perseverance and patience also comes across in Thembi’s views about what still needs doing to improve the women’s game: “There are a lot of things that need to be done but Rome was not built in one day. It will take time”. For her, women’s football is only a reflection of a much broader issue. “It’s acceptance of women, not only in sports, even in the workplace it’s quite difficult for them to be accepted…. Women have to work 10 times much harder to be able to get what males would get. That’s how it’s been for a very long time but I mean things are changing now”. One change happening this year is the launch of a professional women’s league in her homeland, South Africa and Thembi, who currently plays in China for Beijing Phoenix, is hopeful this will be a big step forward.
When asked what she thinks makes African football special she answers in a heartbeat: skills. “That’s one thing I’m proud of about being an African is that we have skills and that we use that in our game”. She sees this as an exciting time for African football more broadly too with the success of her male peers who “are dominating Europe with their skills and their hard work”.
Thembi has a clear and simple message to anyone looking to follow in her footsteps by pursuing their passion. “The advice that I would have for the young girls out there around the world is to stay true to who they are because everywhere they go people will try to change them and challenge them and put them under pressure but if you stay true to who you are then you wouldn’t be taken by anyone’s opinions or points of view because you know who you are and what you want in life”.
“If someone wants to be a soccer player, go for it, wants to be a doctor, go for it, don’t let someone else choose for you what you want to do with your career”.