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Thembi Kgatlana: Gender Bias Couldn’t Stop Her Football Career

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Few people will mention Banyana Banyana and not mention Thembi Kgatlana. That’s how much her presence means for the national team. She represented her country in the biggest football tournaments worldwide, but growing up, such possibilities seemed impossible. 

From being the only girl in the team to scoring South Africa’s first-ever goal at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, this is the story of Thembi Kgatlana.

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Thembi Kgatlana’s Early Career

Thembi Kgatlana playing in a North Carolina Courage vs. Racing Louisville FC game in the 2023 NWSL Challenge Cup final
North Carolina Courage vs. Racing Louisville FC in the 2023 NWSL Challenge Cup final. Source: Wikimedia licensed by CC-BY-SA-4.0

Mohlakeng didn’t give Kgatlana a chance to pursue her football dreams, which she realized at 8. As a result, she was the only girl on the boy’s team. She then left for Pretoria after receiving a scholarship from the SAFA Girls Soccer Academy of TuksSport High School Pretoria. 

Things weren’t easy for her. Like many female footballers, she was questioned for playing the game. This left her parents worried about her safety, as some people couldn’t fathom the idea of a girl playing football. Nonetheless, Kgatlana pursued her dreams

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Professional Career

Interview with Thembi Kgatlana. Video Credit: CGTN Africa

Before she stepped into the big leagues, Thembi Kgatlana played for several semi-professional teams, including:

  • Technical University of Tshwane
  • Lusaka Football Club
  • UWC Sasol League

In 2018, she turned professional after National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) side Houston Dash offered her her first professional contract. She was due to graduate from the university but put her studies on hold. It’s an opportunity she couldn’t say no to. 

Kgatlana was aware of the difficulties ahead but was ready to make the necessary changes. The upside to joining the club is that former Banyana Banyana coach Vera Pauw worked with the team. She played 16 goals and scored two goals.

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Transfers

After a year in the United States, the forward moved to Beijing BG Phoenix in the Chinese Women’s Super League. The speedster scored six goals in 10 games and after her deal was over, she moved to Portugal.

She helped Benfica reach the Portuguese Cup and Taca da Liga Femenina competitions finals. Also, the team qualified for its first-ever UEFA Champions League.

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From there, Kgatlana went to Spain and played for SD Eibar. In 27 games, she netted 10 goals. However, her contract wasn’t renewed and she moved to Atletico Madrid. After another year, the South Africans moved back to the NWSL. She signed up for Racing Louisville. Unfortunately, she didn’t play the 2022 season after tearing her Achilles tendon.

In 2024, Kgatlana moved to the Tigres UNAL Femeni for a record fee.  She signed a three-year deal.

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International Career

Highlights of Thembi Kgatlana. Video Credit: RWMG Sports (Asia)

Thembi is the captain of the South African national team. She debuted in 2014 and has been part of a historic journey with the team. In 2019, she was part of the team that played its maiden FIFA Women’s World Cup in France. Kgatlana scored the country’s first-ever goal against Spain, a moment she says she’ll never forget. 

In 2022, the striker won the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations and returned to the World Cup in Australia & New Zealand. Kgatlana was influential in Banyana Banyana’s first win of the tournament and progression to the last 16.

Thembi Kgatlana is a player any coach wants in their team. She’s determined, speedy, a proven goalscorer and is never shy of taking matters into her own hands. Just like she did when she was eight years old, Kgatlana continues to shine on the biggest stage.  

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