Images: Courtesy of gettyimages/FIFA.com
(Published - 4 August 2019)
It was always likely that Thembi Kgatlana was going to do something spectacular at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2018. After all, the Banyana Banyana striker is a grand player who truly loves the grand occasion. But when Kgatlana rattled in South Africa’s opening goal against Spain with a thunderous long-range effort, she again reminded us of her undoubted talent and the ability to leave football lovers around the world breathless with her skills and quality. In the process, the 23-year-old Kgatlana also joined Bafana Bafana legend Benni McCarthy as the first South Africans to score at their team’s first respective World Cup appearances. It was a little moment of history, which was more than just a little spectacular.
UWC’s Banyana superstar has established herself as one of the top footballers on the planet. She is the reigning African Women’s Footballer of the Year and has also won the award for Goal of the Year at the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Awards. At 23, she has the world at her dazzling feet.
She definitely enjoyed the strike against Spain — although it did not surprise her after she received crucial advice from the team’s wise head coach, Desiree Ellis, before the tournament kicked off.
“The coaches have always encouraged me to shoot. They tell me that I get into good positions and I’m quicker than most players,” Kgatlana says.
“Most of the time, I just want to score easy goals but that day, when we played Spain, I decided to take the shot and it went straight into the goal. If you don’t take a chance, you can’t score!”
However, Kgatlana’s wonder strike was one of the few highlights for the 2018 Women AFCON finalists. Banyana ended up losing all three matches in their group against Spain, China and Germany.
But the experience will do Ellis’ charges the world of good. It was their first taste of the World Cup, having previously experienced the Olympic Games and AFCON a few times; the World Cup is a jewel in the crown of women’s sport.
“It’s everyone’s dream to represent their country at the highest level. I’ve been to the Olympics and have been to the Women AFCON on three occasions. But this was on another level,” Kgatlana says. “For me, it was an amazing experience — different from all other tournaments in terms of professionalism and the whole set-up. People fill up the stadiums and want to see good football. They want to see goals. They want to see girls playing soccer, which is great for us.
“It was an experience for us, the first time qualifying for the World Cup. If you look at our group, the three teams we played were ranked higher than 20. We are only ranked 49th in the world.”
Now it’s back to Beijing, China, for Kgatlana, who has mastered the art of flawlessly eating with chopsticks and eating food that’s, er, a bit bland after choosing the Far East over the United States to further her football career.
“The food is different. They cook the food and eat it the way it is — no pepper, no salt. At first I thought, ‘What did I get myself into’. But four, five months down the line, I’m enjoying it,” she says. “I’m enjoying the food and I know how to use chopsticks! I love a Chinese hotpot.”
One thing’s for sure, Kgatlana will never, ever be a bland footballer.
This article was first published in the Women's Month special edition of the Blue and Gold - UWC Sports' official magazine. Read the full magazine here.