Covid-19 was the only thing that could slow Sundowns Ladies' dominance in the first season of the Safa National Women's League. Coach and players tell how they took the title with a 100% win record.
Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies' coronation as champions of the inaugural Safa National Women's League (SNWL) wasn't befitting of the way Banyana Ba Style romped to victory, smashing records and their opponents in a dominant display of football.
The coronavirus, with its tentacles in every sphere of life, brought the SNWL season (along with all other sporting activities in the country) to an abrupt halt with just one game to go. Sundowns had already won the league but were looking to do so with a 100% win record, having won all 21 of their games up to this point.
Sundowns Ladies were meant to lift the trophy after their last match against old rivals Tshwane University of Technology on 29 March, which was supposed to be the last day of the league. Instead, they were announced as the first winners of the SNWL title in a meek press statement.
The South African Football Association's (Safa) national executive committee "decided that the SNWL be declared concluded and that the current league log standing, with a handful of matches to be played, be declared final. It is on this basis that Mamelodi Sundowns Women's team is declared the league champions for the inaugural 2019-2020 season," read the statement.
There was no trophy, no fanfare, no opportunity for Sundowns to bask in their glory on the football field where they have been so dominant.
"It feels great [to be officially crowned champions]. I think it was due time because if you remember, we won this league with two games to spare. The mood is joyful in the camp, even though we don't get to see each other. But we are excited about this. We were just waiting for Safa to declare us as champions even though we had already celebrated winning the league before," said Sundowns Ladies coach Jerry Tshabalala.
Making good as the favourites
Sundowns Ladies went into the season as one of the top contenders owing to their rich history in previous competitions, including the provincial Sasol League and its National Championships that are contested by the nine provincial winners. The Chloorkop-based side has won those championships twice in three appearances. However, goalkeeper Andile Dlamini says the competition was more difficult than expected.
"It was exciting but very challenging. We have a bunch of hard workers in the team that like challenging themselves. It was not as easy as people think. We had to work hard for every win," said the Banyana Banyana goalkeeper.
Teams with a good support system such as the teams affiliated to Premier Soccer League clubs and university teams were expected to do well in the competition. These teams have facilities and the financial muscle to survive the competition, unlike others whose owners sometimes double up as coaches and have to dip into their own pockets for the club's survival.
Traditionally, women's football is only played at regional and provincial level. The SNWL is the closest that the women's game has to a professional structure. Teams were not used to travelling outside their provinces on a weekly basis. This was one of the challenges they faced and had to adjust to.
Sundowns not only had good support but their matches also attracted some fans. They celebrated each victory by coming together and singing with the handful of people who came to cheer for them. "It shows that it's not about us but it's also for the Sundowns family. We have to show them by winning. It shows that they belong to the team," said striker Rhoda Mulaudzi.
A quality side
Sundowns Ladies' dominance can be credited to an experienced squad with players such as Dlamini, who has 50 Banyana Banyana caps. Chuene Morifi, Bongiwe Thusi, Mulaudzi and Lerato Kgasago also have international caps, while other team members have had a taste of professional football overseas.
Their head coach, Tshabalala, has a good track record in women's football. The SNWL is his third national title in the women's game. His first was the Sasol League National Championship with Sundowns Ladies in 2013, which they won again in 2015. He is also a silver medalist with the now defunct Detroit Ladies from Mpumalanga, in 2010.
Kappa, as he's affectionately known in women's football circles, has a colourful personality. His passion for the women's game is unquestionable. It's clearly visible and audible when he sits on the bench during his team's matches. He is loud, so loud that he could even be heard on television during the matches beamed by the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
"He's been working in women's football for a long time. He understands women's football. He understands football. It's not easy to coach women's teams, especially because of our emotions, but he knows how to handle us. He knows how to make us calm. He doesn't believe in failure," said Mulaudzi.
Tshabalala is known to have a good eye for talent. His vision saw him refining players like Lelona Daweti, Oratile Mokoena, Karabo Dhlamini and Khunjulwa Mali to the point that they all went on to represent South Africa in the junior national teams. Dhlamini also represented Banyana at the Fifa Women's World Cup. Tshabalala is a student of Sundowns men's first team coach Pitso Mosimane, in more ways than one. Not only did Mosimane coach Tshabalala in his playing days, he still shows him the ropes of coaching at the club for which they both work.
"We are used to him [Tshabalala] now," said Dlamini. "He's loud, but that's what pushes us. He's a fun coach. He's a father and a brother to us. He doesn't want to see us not give our best."
Finding her scoring touch
Even before Mulaudzi returned from a stint playing for Apollon Ladies in Cyprus, Sundowns were already winning their matches with good margins. After her former team was eliminated from the Uefa Women's Champions League qualifying round, she made her way back to South Africa for her fourth stint with Banyana Ba Style. The side had already played five matches in the SNWL. Despite that, she finished as the league's top goalscorer with 36 goals.
"When I came, I just wanted to assist the team to do well. I wanted to make sure I score in every game. It had been bothering me that I hadn't been scoring goals at Banyana. Morifi told me that I shouldn't be hard on myself and that I will start scoring again. Things changed and my confidence grew, I started scoring and I regained my flow. This past season has given me new confidence that I will be able to continue where I left off and score for the national team as well," said Mulaudzi.
The semi-professional contracts that Sundowns Ladies offered its players set the league winners apart from the other teams. The improved contracts mean the players will be remunerated, although what they are being paid is still a long way from what the men's team receives.
This leaves Tshabalala with a somewhat "easy" job to get the best out of his players. He has also been taken care of by the club, signing a permanent contract that should make it easier for the side to retain their title. Although Tshabalala has been with Sundowns since 2012, he was employed as a warehouse supervisor at veterinary pharmaceutical company Virbac. He has since resigned to focus on the team.
"It's not going to be easy for us to defend the title. It's going to be difficult because we have set the bar high," Tshabalala said. "But I have already handed out training programmes to my players. I'm happy that I have disciplined players who want to win at all costs. It's good to see that the players are following the programmes and they are reporting back to me.
"I have to thank the management of Mamelodi Sundowns for realising the potential that the [Sundowns Ladies] coaches have, and having faith to give me the job permanently. [Being a full-time coach] will give me enough time to prepare my team. I won't say we will achieve the same result of winning the league without a loss, but this time around it will be easier for me because I will have all my time to focus on the team. This time around the onus is on me to defend the title successfully."