- The draw for the 2022 Africa Women Cup of Nations qualifiers takes place on 10 May
- The competition will double as the qualifying tournament for the next FIFA Women’s World Cup
- Three years ago, Nigeria beat Thembi Kgatlana’s South Africa in the continental final
It was with a mix of satisfaction and disappointment that South Africa concluded the last CAF Africa Women’s Cup of Nations three years ago. In reaching the final of the continental contest, they had also achieved a maiden qualification for the FIFA Women’s World Cup™, but for the fifth time in their history, they fell at the last hurdle, losing out to Nigeria (0-0, 4-3 on penalties).
“We’ll get the rub of the green eventually,” Thembi Kgatlana, top scorer and recipient of the Player of the Tournament award in 2018, told FIFA.com. “Nigeria have been the dominant force for a long time now, but I feel like things are starting to change.
“The Nigerians might have beaten us on penalties in the final, but we’d already got a 1-0 win against them in our opening group match. And we’re not the only ones. African football is increasingly competitive.”
In fact, no fewer than 20 additional teams will be present in the starting blocks this time around, in comparison to the previous qualifying campaign. With four automatic spots at the World Cup up for grabs, as well as two berths at the play-off tournament, there will be a reasonable chance of newcomers imitating the Banyana Banyana, who had never appeared on women’s football’s greatest stage prior to France 2019.
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Due to the fact that they both come from the same continent, that they are supremely talented, and that they play their club football in Spain (one at Eibar, the other at Barcelona), Thembi Kgatlana and Nigeria’s Asisat Oshoala are often compared with each other.
“She’s a good player, with bags of experience, but I don’t regard her as a rival,” explained Kgatlana. “We’re different players. It’s like comparing Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. They’re fantastic footballers with their own special attributes. Why should we have to choose one over the other?”
A strike to remember
“In terms of atmosphere, level of play and passion, nothing can compare to a World Cup – that’s the be-all and end-all for a football player,” she said. “It’s a dream for anyone to represent their country at the highest level. And it’s incredible to get the opportunity to see how you measure up against the best players in the world and to play alongside them. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what I want to experience, again and again and again.”
The three defeats suffered by the South Africans at France 2019 (1-3 versus Spain, 0-1 versus China PR and 0-4 versus Germany) have clearly not had too much of an adverse effect on the morale of the energetic forward. She did attain a notable consolation prize during the tournament: by scoring a gem against Spain, she became the first South African player to hit the back of the net at a Women’s World Cup.
“We had waited so long to stamp our ticket for the World Cup,” said Kgatlana. “After many years of preparation, hopes and disappointments, we made it, and to score a goal in our first appearance was the cherry on the cake.
“I’ll remember that goal for the rest of my life. I could describe the build-up to the goal, right down to the slightest detail. It was really important that we score, and it eased our disappointment at not getting past the first round. To sum up, that goal has pride of place in my collection.”
Kgatlana certainly knows a thing or two about hitting the net, and it is a skill she has exhibited all over the world. In addition to her 59 international appearances (19 goals), the majority of which have been played in Africa, she has also plied her trade at club level in North America (Houston Dash, United States), Asia (Beijing BG Phoenix, China) and Europe (Benfica, Portugal, then Eibar, Spain). Given that the adventurous 25-year-old has a degree in tourism, this impulse to travel is perhaps not all that surprising.
“I really enjoy performing in Spain, but I must say that I get pleasure no matter where I go, as long as I’m playing football,” said Kgatlana, who has notched ten goals in 21 matches for Eibar. “Everywhere I go, I aim to be the best – at training and during matches. It’s always easier to succeed when you play in a team that understands your style, which is the case with where I am at the moment. After last season – at Benfica – was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m delighted to be able to express myself on the pitch again.”
And that may be just as well, because Kgatlana’s upcoming schedule looks rather hectic. As well as Liga matches every weekend, the South African striker has a number of national-team fixtures to look forward to. In particular, there is the small matter of a title to defend at the COSAFA Women’s Championship and, of course, the possibility of finally claiming that elusive Africa Cup of Nations crown in 2022.