soccer, family and God for 'iron lady'

Don Makatile

Don Makatile

The woman dubbed the "Iron Lady" of South African football, Natasha Tsichlas, is at heart a real softie.

Trained in social work, Athens-born Tsichlas is nothing like Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister who inspired the soccer administrator's sobriquet.

While Thatcher would almost willy-nilly send her charges to a war that could kill them, as over the Falklands dispute of 1982 with Argentina, Tsichlas deployed hers to battles that entertained hordes of soccer lovers, and if they "died" was as a result of losing on the soccer pitch.

She has women she looks up to, Tsichlas says, but with names like MaSisulu, Madikizela-Mandela and the late Mama Tambo, the only common thread among these and Thatcher is politics and perhaps the love for their Motherland.

Arguably the single most influential woman in South African soccer - an unashamedly male domain - Tsichlas has not achieved this by using the typically male brawn and muscle.

The fuddy-duddies at Safa, where she heads women's soccer, should perhaps look no further than her office when it comes to handling prima donnas like Benni McCarthy.

McCarthy, after the Aussie game, duped the suits at Soccer City into thinking he was kosher when he said: "I want to be part of the World Cup team". In just one press conference, all his sins - and there are many - were forgotten.

Tsichlas has done it a countless number of times before - whipping wayward stars back into line. Lovers Mohlala, perhaps the best example of player insolence, is a case in point.

"I'd speak to him like a mother," she says of Benni in her heavily accented English. "I'd tell him he is just one of 40 players who can do the job for the country."

Like a magic wand, this approach worked much better than the cap-in-hand dalliances in which Safa prefers to engage the Blackburn Rovers striker.

It has worked so well in fact that former players at Mamelodi Sundowns, the high-flying club she ran with hubby Angelo and Abe Krok, still keep in touch.

She scrolls for a message from former midfield genius Rover Feutmba, before putting down her mobile, a device much busier than the switchboard of a repu- table company.

"He was just saying hello," she says of the Cameroonian's SMS.

"I bring in a player, sit him down and ask him if there's anything I don't do to satisfy him," she says of her style of mana- gement. "I ask him why he should give me less than what I give him."

The Sundowns outfit she ran was a tight ship, as evinced by the many championship trophies she reels off, including three league titles in a row followed by another consecutive two.

When we speak to her late on Thursday afternoon, Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, who had earlier complained of a bout of flu, had just bombed out of the 800m semis in Beijing, leaving the country with long jumper Khotso Mokoena's lone silver medal.

"I don't think we prepared well for the Olympics," Tsichlas says.

While Beijing is likely to go down in history as our worst Olympic showing, Tsichlas is optimistic about our chances come 2010.

"It will be a different ball game altogether," she says. "Every player will want to make his mark."

With a seat on Fifa committees and a voice on every soccer body in the country, she's close enough to the heart of the action to know all that needs be known about the game and our preparedness for the World Cup.

While celebrated soccer bosses like Kaizer Motaung and Irvin Khoza are everyday colleagues, she rubs shoulders on world platforms with big names of the beautiful game from Abedi Pele, George Weah, Sir Bobby Charlton, Michel Platini to head honcho Sepp Blatter.

It has been a long and eventful journey for Tsichlas who, as a mere six-year-old, accompanied her father Stavros to an Olympiakos game against Corinthians of Brazil.

"Everybody at the game, even in the Olympiakos stands, was rooting for Pele," she recalls.

Today she sits in Fifa meetings with the greatest footballer of all time and reminisces about the good old days.

Soccer is her first love, says the Iron Lady. Even when she's at home, relaxation is in the form of watching soccer matches on television and critiquing them with her sons Stelio and Stavros.

While they are both grown now the boys had to understand from an early age that they were to share her with many other people in the game of millions, chiefly players with unending personal problems.

Many of the problems the players brought to her were family related, says the social worker.

"And since these were likely to impact on their game, we thought it wise to involve the players' families at the club," she says.

From the time of Zola Mahobe, Sundowns has always been a trendsetter in the area of bringing WAGS closer to the club, having flown them, a total of 53 people, to an FA Final in London in May 1986.

With his ill-gotten gains, Mr Cool, Mahobe, believed that "when everybody is happy the money will flow in".

When Tsichlas came on board she took the motherly line - football, family and God. The creatives ones would often have it "God, family and Sundowns".

The game can do with a few more women, she says. She counts them off her fingers, Mato Madlala, Ria Ledwaba, Anna Monate, Fran Hilton-Smith ...

"We need more."

Women can lead football, Tsichlas says, pointing out that Pakistan, of all places, has a woman in charge of soccer.

"We are good organisers," she asserts. "We bring a good spirit to the game."

And with the hit-and-miss style that has become the hallmark of the incumbent Safa leadership, a president with the heart of a mother cannot be such a bad idea.