'I'm living my best life as footballer' - Thembi Kgatlana

Thembi Kgatlana has taken women's football by storm through her sterling performances for South Africa. / Sydney Mahlangu/ BackpagePix
Thembi Kgatlana has taken women's football by storm through her sterling performances for South Africa. / Sydney Mahlangu/ BackpagePix

Thembi Kgatlana burst into the broader South African football landscape three years ago, and as a striker, she had the precision and nonchalance of a seasoned sniper.

Since then, the pint-sized player has continued to relentlessly pile on the plaudits.

It was mostly thanks to the goals the 23-year old scored that Banyana Banyana qualified to turn up at a Fifa Women's World Cup for the first time, and once they arrived in France earlier this year, it was through her boot that they registered their first goal at the tournament.

The tournament was a baptism of fire for Banyana, but Kgatlana, who had been plying her trade in the United States for the Houston Dash until then, soon packed her bags and headed for China, where she now plays for Beijing BG Phoenix.

When observers expressed surprise at her decision to opt for the Far East, instead of any of the more established bastions of the women's game like France or Sweden, her fearlessness and willingness operate outside her comfort zone when she said she wanted to be part of the growth that is taking place there.

"The league they have there is growing. There are a couple of Africans that are already there. It's a market that's growing and they're attracting a lot of Africans. Most of the times in the leagues we are not easily accepted. You first have to have a lot of achievements before someone gives you an opportunity. I'm living my best life now in terms of exploring my football and if a team wants to give me a job I go wherever I need to go."

Meanwhile, off the field, her bold approach is being rewarded as well, with her nomination by the Ministry of Sports as one of the best athletes in the country prove of that. The honour follows closely behind the prestigious gSport award she won in August.

The reigning African Women's Player has defied expectations, and refused to fit into the mold all her life, her mother Koko has said.

Despite the mother's best efforts to dissuade her, her little girl insisted she belonged in the street kicking a ball around with her brothers and their friends. Koko Kgatlana has since changed her mind.

"I am beyond proud of her. I did not want her to play football when she started at primary school. She was also in the athletics team, and I preferred athletics, since I was also an athlete. Unfortunately for me at that time, she chose the sport her father played, which is football," she said.

Above all, Kgatlana is already a catalyst of change. A year ago, South Africans flooded social media, demanding from the authorities that they start paying the women according to their worth.

Prior to that avalanche of support, opinions had always been divided on whether women footballers deserved to be paid on par with their male counterparts.

"Thembi has always been humble, respectful. She does her talking with her boots. I am glad the girls are getting the support they deserve," Kgatlana's mother says.

"As a family, we actually started to back her when she went to high school. That was when we saw that she had inherited her father Matlhomola's talent."

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