South Africa's Women Soccer Readies for Fall Games

Monday, May 3, 2010

Now that World Cup tickets have gone on sale, much of the soccer world is looking forward to the June games. But for female soccer players in South Africa the big month is October, when their country hosts the African Women's Championship.

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Players from the Women's Football Academy at the University of Pretoria.(WOMENSENEWS)--At first, Hlengiwe Ngwane's family didn't want her to train professionally for soccer. They didn't want her learning a "boy's game," she says, and they didn't think she'd be good.

But these days when she goes home to Hillcrest, in the South African coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal, she's a well-known face.

Ngwane, 24, is a midfielder and plays defense for Banyana Banyana ("the ladies"), South Africa's main national women's soccer team.

While the country and world rev up for the men's World Cup in June, which South Africa will be hosting, Ngwane and her teammates are focused on October, when South Africa will host the biennial Confederation of African Football Women's Championship.

At the continental tournament the women's team hopes to win or come second, which is needed to secure a place at the 2011 Women's World Cup in Germany. South Africa currently holds third place in women's soccer rankings in Africa, trailing powerhouses Nigeria and Ghana, the only two Confederation of African Football teams to have competed in Women's World Cup tournaments since it began in 1991. South Africa has never qualified for the Women's World Cup.

Banyana Banyana has advanced its International Football Association ranking to 56th place, as of the beginning of 2010, from 73rd in 2007, due in a large part to new corporate sponsors.

The team was established in 1993, one year before South Africa's first democratic elections. For the first 10 years or so, however, Banyana was largely overshadowed by the men's team in a country that seemed at best ambivalent towards female soccer players and at worst outright hostile.

Efforts to start competitive women's leagues came and went, but in 2009 regional and provincial leagues were officially launched with the help of major sponsorships from the South African bank Absa and the energy corporation Sasol. The size of the donations has not been publicized and neither company responded to requests seeking details on the financing.

More Money, More Teams

The Sasol provincial league has roughly 140 teams, according to Fran Hilton-Smith, South African Football Association Women's National Teams manager. Seven hundred teams participate in the Absa regional league.

The sponsorships changed the face of women's football completely, says Hilton-Smith. National teams improved greatly and the funding helped local leagues become more competitive and organized.

Few players earn a salary from their clubs, but the sponsorships help cover funding for basic expenses such as transportation and equipment. More girls can now participate in showcase games and training for the national teams.

"Girls can now look like girls and play in their own leagues without having to imitate boys so they could play in the boy's teams, as happened before," says Hilton-Smith, a long-time instructor for the Confederation of African Football.

Many members of the Women's Football Academy at the University of Pretoria ('Tuks'), founded by Hilton-Smith in 2003, make up the under-17 and the under-20 national teams, and several graduates have gone on to play with Banyana. At the Academy, female teens selected by the South African Football Association live and breathe football at the TuksSport High School, receiving attention from world-class sports scientists, psychologists and trainers at the University of Pretoria's High Performance Center.

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Team sports can be tough. With both boys and girls, it can damage the ability and willingness for true respect and closeness, in exchange for a contrived and almost commercial show of both, with little understanding of life outside of sports. Each person and team must take their/her/his responsibility for care and respect for self and others, and to not live for the sport first. That could prevent some from achieving professional levels, when a cold hearted push for winning is required. It would be good to hear from female athletes who have achieved the highest level in their sport, and those who have chosen to not.