Thembi tops the Banyana charts
Thembi Kgatlane turned down a golden ticket that would have given her a short-cut to the American dream when she remarkably put South Africa ahead of her own personal ambitions last year.
Her decision might befuddle some. But it has richly rewarded Kgatlane and her Banyana Banyana teammates with a gold medal as they brought glory to the country by being crowned the Council of Southern African Football Associations (Cosafa) champions last Sunday.
Kgatlane's four goals - including the opener in the final against hosts Zimbabwe - and five assists, secured a fourth Cosafa crown for the senior women's national soccer side. The 2-1 victory at Barbourfields Stadium in Bulawayo provided a moment of history as caretaker coach and former captain Desiree Ellis became the first to capture the crown as player and coach.
Kgatlane feels the Banyana feat justifies her declining a full scholarship to study in the land of the stars and stripes.
"Late last year in October I was about to write my exam when I got the offer of a full scholarship from the Oral Roberts University [based in Tulsa, Oklahoma] to study any course of my choice," says Kgatlane. "They e-mailed me because they got my contact from Nelly Mamabolo, who studies there."
But the 21-year-old University of the Western Cape second year BA in tourism student felt home was where the heart is. "Most people get scholarships overseas, but it is rare to see them being called up. No one monitors their performance," said Kgatlane. "I'm fighting very hard to secure my starting place in the team and now I must leave. The possibility is that I may never be called up to the national team.
Player of the tournament
"The education is good, they give a full scholarship and everything. I was prepared to forgo that. I can't waste the two years I've studied in SA to go to the US. But the main reason was that if you're not here, you are away from the eyes of the national team selectors.
"Truly speaking we're getting old, the older you get and with no regular play, no team will want you. So I decided to stay in SA and now we've won a cup for the country."
Over and above her goal glut, Kgatlane grabbed the player of the tournament gong. She is the livewire of the team who wantonly visits considerable damage upon the opposition with her darting runs, and she takes players on. She has blistering pace.
A 100m, 200m and 1500m athlete at Mohlakano Primary and AB Phokompe High School, Kgatlane's soccer journey started at age nine. Then, she joined Napoli FC, a boys' team in her neighbourhood of Mohlakeng in Randfontein, west of Johannesburg.
"After school I'd be alone when they, my friends, would go to training. One day I followed them and started playing. I was always happy and couldn't wait for school to knock off so that I could go play soccer.
"Football gives me a joyful feeling. I just wanna run and kick this thing and put it in the net. I joined Parma Ladies FC when I was 11." Her football doors really opened when Kgatlane went to Denmark for the Dana Cup tournament.
A few years later she became part of the under-17 national team and was accepted into the High Performance Centre in Pretoria in 2012, the same year she moved up to the Basetsana Basetsana under-20 national side.
Her Banyana debut arrived on August 5 2014 in a friendly against Namibia and she's since amassed 27 caps and six goals.
She aspires to scale the heights of Martha, the Brazil global football icon she was grateful to play against at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
"You can improve as a player. Scoring goals doesn't make you the best; having a bad game doesn't make you the worst. Every day you can improve."