South Africa: Nothando Vilakazi's Rocky Road to Stardom

analysis

The Banyana Banyana defender is one of the most reliable players in the team, helping them make history at the Olympics and Fifa Women's World Cup. It's a pity her No. 1 fan didn't get to see it.

Banyana Banyana's most consistent player, Nothando Vilakazi, has played in tournaments watched by billions, from the Fifa Women's World Cup to the Olympics and Uefa Women's Champions League. But she would sacrifice all those viewers to be watched by one special supporter who missed her rise to prominence.

Her mother, Sarah Maseko, died in 2007 before Vilakazi made her Banyana debut. A decade later, when Vilakazi received her 100th cap during the 2017 Cosafa Women's Championship in Zimbabwe, the leftback felt that the one person who would have been prouder than herself of her journey was her mother.

But she wasn't there to see her join the exclusive 100-caps club, or when she played in two Olympic Games, or when she was part of the first Banyana team to feature in the World Cup in France this year. Vivow's mother didn't get to see much of her journey and growth in football. Her funeral was the day after Vilakazi received her first senior national team call-up.

"It's not nice that she's not here to see all of this. But I told myself that I am playing for her. It's what keeps me going, playing for her. I want to make her proud wherever she is. That's why when there's something troubling me, like the red card [I got in the World Cup], I play and know that she will be proud of me. No matter how far I go. There are so many people who want to get to where I am and they can't. That is what is pushing me [to work hard]," she said.

Journey to Bafana

Even though Vilakazi's mother wasn't around to see her daughter become a star, she was there during her formative years as a budding footballer. Vilakazi started her football journey at Walter Stars. Orlando Pirates captain Happy Jele and former Bafana Bafana striker Mandla Masango were some of her teammates. That team was owned by Walter Mokoena, a former sportscaster who is now special adviser to the minister of sport, arts and culture.

"I started playing football with boys in the township [in Middelburg, Mpumalanga]," she says. "I joined the Under-15 boys league, where I played for Walter Stars. I played for one season. I had a challenge when the team had to camp for games and my mother wasn't happy that I was playing for a boys' team because we had to travel and camp. She didn't understand this."

Vilakazi's mother only warmed to the idea of her playing for an all-boys team because Mokoena was able to accommodate her when the team was in camp. Things became better when she moved to the now defunct Highlanders, her first all-girls teams.

This opened up an opportunity for her to move to the University of Pretoria-based High Performance Centre, where she completed her schooling at TuksSport High School. She was selected while representing Mpumalanga at the United School Sports Association of South Africa. Her hard work and patience saw her form part of the most formidable women's football team in the country, Palace Super Falcons.

The now defunct club is the only team to have won the Sasol League National Championship three times. She was there for all those victories. Women's football in the country is growing, but it will take time for it to get to where people such as Vilakazi would like it to be.

"Everything takes time. Just imagine, I came from Mpumalanga and got into the High Performance Centre for me to get to where I am now. It didn't just happen. It took a long time. I was patient and I waited for my time to come. One day when I am done with football, I would like to go back to Mpumalanga and motivate kids on their journeys in football," she said.

Vilakazi has the unfortunate distinction of being the first South African player to receive a red card in the opening match of a World Cup. She received two yellow cards in Banyana's 3-1 loss to Spain, her second yellow granting the Spaniards a penalty. Her absence was notable in Banyana's second group match of the competition, in which Desiree Ellis' side lost 1-0 to China.

"I told myself that things like this happen. And there were people who sent me messages that I am not the first person to experience this and, knowing that I had gotten myself a team overseas, that was a way for me to pick myself up," Vilakazi said.

"What's unbelievable about that day was that my stats were so high. I played my heart out in that game. I gave it my all. I was so unlucky to get a red card. I was disappointed that the team didn't win but it could have happened to anyone. I didn't blame myself, though, that we didn't win. I knew that I gave it my all in that game."

World Cup lessons

The Banyana veteran said the team could have done better in their first appearance at the World Cup. Returning home after the first round was a disappointment for her. In hindsight, she said, they shouldn't have played defensive football. Banyana's performance dipped after they qualified for France 2019.

They went into the tournament without winning a single match after securing their ticket, and continued in that vein to crash out in the group stage. Successfully defending the Cosafa Women's Championship title seemed like some form of redemption, but being knocked out of the Tokyo Olympics qualifiers by Botswana raised red flags.

"Everyone is now playing for themselves. We can't blame everything on the coach, as players we also need to take responsibility. We need to step up. I feel we are running away from responsibility as players. We can't pin things on one player, maybe the captain or another. What about the rest of us?" she said.

Banyana will get a taste of what they will be missing out on next year in the Olympics when they take on the hosts, Japan, in Fukuoka on Sunday 10 November 2019 in an international friendly. Despite that disappointment, Vilakazi has plenty of reasons to celebrate, mainly that of finally realising her dream of playing overseas.

She and Banyana teammate Jermaine Seoposenwe bagged contracts at Lithuanian football club Gintra Universitetas just a couple of months before South Africa made its first appearance at the World Cup.

"I was really happy that I finally got to move overseas. Years and time had passed [without any move coming]," she said sheepishly.

Signing for Gintra gave her a chance to experience football at a professional level and play in the biggest club football competition for women, the Uefa Women's Champions League. Lithuania is fast becoming a good stepping stone for players to secure moves to other leagues in Europe. Vittsjö GIK player Leandra Smeda played for Gintra last season before moving to Sweden. Vilakazi is hoping for the same.

After her team was eliminated from the preliminary round of the Champions League, she returned home hoping her agent at LTA Agency football management would find a new club for her. LTA represents a number of talented African players, including 2017 Confederation of African Football Women Player of the Year finalist Gabrielle Onguene, South African midfielder and AC Milan player Refiloe Jane, and Namibian and Valencia player Zenatha Coleman.

"It was easier [to settle at Gintra] because I was staying with Jermaine. There would be times where I would miss home, but what helped is that Jermaine and I are friends. We would motivate one another. When I felt that I didn't do well in a match, I had someone I would speak to about the game and what I could improve on."

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