Strength of a woman
In 1993 when Banyana Banyana played their first international match against Swaziland; who would have known that less than 20 years later they would join an elite class of African Women football teams representing their country in the most prestigious games in the world - The Olympics!
When I first watched Banyana Banyana play, it was live at the Sinaba Stadium in Daveyton during the African Women's Championship way back in late 2010! I was impressed with how organised the team looked and with the support of the crowd they managed to finish third, just missing out on a place at the 2011 Women's World Cup in Germany. Nigeria, the only team at that tournament with a female coach won the title, while Equatorial Guinea were second.
At the time I believed that South Africa were serious about women's football.
Then came qualification for the 2012 Olympic games. Banyana Banyana scored five past Zambia, beat Tunisia 6-5 in a penalty shootout and Ethiopia 4-1 to find themselves in London.
I was impressed; and as a Kenyan, very envious. Out of the 17 countries that played in the qualifiers for the Olympics, Kenya was no-where to be seen. Take note.
Banyana Banyana, however, were terribly exposed at the Olympic games. They didn't win a single game and scored just one goal in their three group games. A great goal, but just the one.
As I was hosting an Edition of "London Calling" on SuperSport Gold, I had the honour of interviewing Banyana striker Portia Modise; the woman who scored that wonder goal from half-way down the pitch during Banyana's 4-1 loss to Sweden at the Olympics. Portia is an amazing person who poured her heart out during the live interview. She spoke of how her wondergoal was scored out of anger because they were losing 3-0 at the time. But she also said it was an honour to just appear at the Olympics.
And then she shocked me!
She spoke of how women's football in South Africa gets very little support from the SA Football Association (Safa) at league level. She spoke of how the women's football league in South Africa was next to non-existent; that it had very few sponsors; and that unlike the boys; it was impossible for Banyana players to become fully professional as they had to have day jobs to pay the bills. She spoke of how the only time they trained professionally was when they were called up to the national team; and that the rest of the time they had to maintain their fitness without trainers.
Modise told of how the national federation and sponsors offered huge incentives for Bafana Bafana but that the same was never forthcoming for the girls.
She then spoke of how expectation for them to perform was so high without the fans and critics understanding their plight. As a fan, I understand how all we want is good results without knowing the challenges that our sports people face. Many South Africans on twitter were a little harsh asking why Banyana could not win a single game at the Olympics.
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I agreed with Modise when she said that drawing nil nil with world champions Japan was an achievment. It's like Harambee Stars drawing 0-0 with Spain. Yes!
She then poured her heart out on live TV telling me how the team played and always plays with their hearts. The girls love the game and they love their country and everytime they step onto the pitch, they forget all their behind-the-scenes issues and focus on making their citizens proud.
I was amazed and disappointed at their football fathers. In recent years Banyana have been more successful internationally than Bafana, but it's the spirit of the girls that drive them.
I also felt a little ashamed. Yes more needs to be done around Africa for women's football to grow and compete with the best in the world. As respected SA football analyst Farouk Khan said on "London Calling" three weeks ago, most countries in Europe, Asia and the Americas have solid leagues for their women; and until we do the same in Africa, we'll never compete. But perhaps we could emulate what Banyana are doing and at least get our feet off the ground with or without the officials. At least for now as we campaign for support. In Kenya we whine a bit too much and always want someone else to "fix" things.
Watching Banyana play on the international scene, I would never have guessed what challenges they go through as players. As an outsider looking in; everything looked pretty rosy and organised. And now; despite them not winning a game a the Olympics, I take my hat off to them!
At some point sponsors and more support from their federation to form a formidable women's league is needed for growth to happen; and at some point, our federation will need to step in and take control of a women's league in Kenya; but right now, I just want them to fix Harambee Stars.
Its sad too that Fifa does not give National federations any money for the dvelopment of women's football and our government doesn't seem to detect a need for a budget there either.
I hope the "powers that be" in South Africa were watching "London Calling" on that Women's Day morning; and I hope they'll come forward and take our continental stars to the next level.
Not all countries can achieve what Banyana Banyana has achieved given their challenges; but I hope their story can inspire Kenyan women footballers to stand up and be counted!