Asking questions got the young footballer to Atletico Madrid, where she is honing her skills as a club player in Spain’s Primera División. But she has her sights set on an even bigger league experience.
Thembi Kgatlana is fast becoming a household name in South African women’s football and may be on her way to superstar status on the world stage, too. Her prominence in Africa has grown over the years, in part because of her healthy rivalry with Nigeria’s Asisat Oshoala. Both of the former CAF Women’s Footballer of the Year award winners play in the Primera División in Spain.
Kgatlana has played in five different leagues even though she is still in her 20s, four of these in professional club football. Her pace and ability to think on her feet make her an attractive signing, especially in Europe where she is now playing for her third club, Atletico Madrid. SL Benfica in the Campeonato Nacional Feminino and Primera Iberdrola’s SD Eibar were her previous clubs in Europe. She played with Banyana team-mate and former CAF Women’s Footballer of the Year Noko Matlou in her first season in Spain.
Veteran Portia Modise’s move to Fortuna Hjørring in Denmark opened Kgatlana’s eyes to the world of professional football and inspired her to work towards playing football for a living. It would be a long journey.
“I have always been a curious person,” says Kgatlana. “I never let something just go without me knowing what it means or how I can use that to my advantage.” When she was playing at Palmer Ladies, an amateur women’s club from her hometown of Mohlakeng, she asked the older players why she wasn’t seeing Modise in South Africa. Someone at training told her she was in Denmark, earning a living as a footballer.
“I had lots of questions because at that point I didn’t even know of a team that paid to play football. I was a little girl that was so curious to have an idea of just being on the field and people paying you to do what you love. For me, that was what I think pushed me in my youth to say, how do I get to where Portia is? I don’t know how I will get there, but hopefully one day I will.”
Although Modise fuelled her ambition to play football professionally, Kgatlana is carving her own path. She hopes her success will inspire the next generation of girls to dream big and make a name for themselves. “I knew I was never going to be like Portia. We are different and we can set goals, but our journeys are different and that’s one thing that has carried me. I’ve never compared myself to any player in Banyana, I’ve always been Thembi and I always want to be Thembi.”
Spain’s La Liga is recruiting girls and boys from the Council of Southern Africa Football Associations region, says Kgatlana. “If we had those opportunities when I started, I think we would have had more people going to Europe.” She says there will be players greater than her in the future, because of the opportunities “coming in the generation we live in”.
Kgatlana’s name is often brought up alongside Oshoala’s as one of the best players of this generation. It may have created the impression that the two could be rivals on the continent, owing to their ongoing success in Africa and around the world. Apart from both winning the CAF Women’s Footballer of the Year award, they have also played club football in the Chinese Women’s Super League. But Oshoala has had a head start in global competitions and this, Kgatlana says, has put them on different paths.
“No, no, I wouldn’t consider Asisat as my rival. We are different players. One does this good and one does that. And if we had to go through our football history, we’ll see that Asisat went to a lot of junior World Cups whereas I didn’t go. Maybe this is why she was way ahead in her career than me and now I don’t see her as my rival. If I start thinking of what other people are saying about us, then I will miss the bigger picture.
“It’s great that both of us are playing in the same league, so people can have perspective and see we are different players, in different stages of our careers. If I went through the juniors the same way that Asisat went or had the opportunities, then my life would probably have been different. She started going through when she was a bit younger. Before France [in 2019, where Banyana played in their maiden World Cup], I didn’t know what it took to play in the World Cup. So to say she is my rival, I have no place whatsoever to say that.”
That elusive Afcon gold
Kgatlana was only introduced to the senior national team setup in her last year of high school. She was part of Vera Pauw’s first training camp, which included veteran Veronica Phewa and Modise, when the Dutch coach took over at Banyana in 2014. The TuksSport High School matriculant made her debut later that year, in South Africa’s 5-1 win over Algeria in the last group match at the 2014 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in Namibia. Ironically, she came on as Modise’s sub in that game. Since then, she has represented South Africa at the 2016 Rio Olympics and the Fifa Women’s World Cup in France.
Kgatlana was also instrumental in helping Banyana qualify for the 2022 Women’s Afcon taking place in Morocco from 2 to 23 July. Kgatlana was on the score sheet, along with Hilda Magaia, for their 2-1 win against Algeria in the first leg, before winning the two-legged tie 3-1 on aggregate.
Morocco will be a big test for Desiree Ellis’ side after finishing with yet another silver medal at the most recent edition of the competition. But the new format with four more teams might prove a challenge for the five-time finalists. There are four debutants in the competition, including Botswana who eliminated Banyana in the Beijing Olympics qualifiers. To prepare for the showpiece, Banyana will play the Netherlands in The Hague on 12 April.
“This one is tough. I don’t want to lie and I don’t want us to get excited. We have to tread carefully. Yes, we look like we have a chance of winning out of all the teams that are there. I think people will generally say they expect Nigeria, South Africa and Cameroon to be in the top eight. We have played in the Africa Cup of Nations more than all the other teams, but nothing is guaranteed.
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“Whoever wants it the most and whoever is well prepared will win it. But it’s going to be a lot of hard work, a lot of commitment, you know, a lot of reflection to be able to stand on the podium and get a gold medal. Banyana has created a profile for themselves in Africa, where everyone that plays us wants to beat us. So from our side, it’s going to be like we are going to war.”
As her career soars in Europe, Kgatlana would like to add to the highlights. Next in her sights is the Uefa Women’s Champions League and a league title in Europe. Although she is undeniably ambitious, Kgatlana knows these won’t be easy to achieve.
“Playing in Europe has been great. It’s the pinnacle of football for the fact that it has a Uefa Champions League. Yeah, it’s a tough one and of course everyone wants to win that trophy, everyone wants to win medals, but we also have to understand where we come from. A lot of these opportunities here have been created for European girls. Before I retire I would love to at least… I don’t want to say win the Champions League but to at least play in the tournament, because I’m yet to make my debut in the Champions League.”
Although her nickname is Pikinini, she is definitely not a small figure in women’s football. She is bound to make big strides in the future that will be more memorable than her goal at the Parc des Princes during the 2019 World Cup.