Thembi Kgatlana: the wind beneath Banyana's wings
The shy and humble striker is the shining star at the Women's Cup of Nations
The words "unselfish" and "teamwork" come out more often than any from Desiree Ellis's mouth as she gives a picture of the Banyana Banyana team she is leading in the African Women's Cup of Nations (Awcon) entering its final week in Ghana.
Ellis was on the phone speaking to the Sunday Times a day after Banyana thrilled the nation and many others by thrashing Equatorial Guinea 7-1 in their second Group B match.
The result strengthens Banyana Banyana's prospects of getting closer to their ultimate goal of securing a place in next year's Fifa Women's World Cup in France, but Ellis is having none of that talk, insisting they still needed to confirm their semifinal spot. They did exactly that with a 1-1 draw against Zambia in Accra last night.
"We can start talking about the semifinal after getting a point at least against Zambia, but for now (Thursday) I won't have that discussion," cautions Ellis, the coach that her bosses never showed belief she was capable of turning Banyana into the mean machine and an all-round outfit that is dishing out magnificent performances in Ghana.
THE BRILLIANCE OF THEMBI
As much as Ellis emphasises the importance of teamwork that saw them outfox and outthink their biggest rivals Nigeria (1-0) in their first match on Sunday, she can't help but join those admiring the individual brilliance of her striker, Thembi Kgatlana.
The 22-year-old Randfontein born Kgatlana has caught the imagination of everyone paying attention to this tournament with four goals and two player-of-the-match performances in three matches.
Kgatlana scored a magnificent winner against Nigeria before producing two assists and two goals in the 7-1 demolition of the Guinean team on Wednesday night.
"We know Thembi's quality," said Ellis of Kgatlana, who secured a one-year professional contract with Houston Dash in the US in February alongside her Banyana teammate Linda Motlhalo.
"We also know that when Thembi comes off the bench she is a livewire. But, you know, Thembi had a good Cosafa Cup last year and didn't have such a good one this year - but we know her quality.
"But for us it's all about the teamwork. We believe that if the team does well the brilliance of the individual will come through, which just happened in the past two games with Thembi."
That Kgatlana is unselfishly sharing the scoring responsibility with her teammates when she's had ample chances to take the openings herself does not surprise Ellis.
"For us it doesn't matter who scores because we know we have the ultimate goal, which is to qualify for the World Cup. So it's all about teamwork.
"Individuals like Kgatlana will always shine within the team's framework."
PLAN, COME WHAT MAY
Ellis's team will confirm their place in next year's final if they beat Mali on Tuesday as three teams will represent the African continent in France. Cameroon will face Nigeria in the other semifinal on Tuesday.
"Look, you cannot have a preference. You've just got to play what's ahead of you. Whoever is ahead of you, you've just got to plan properly and execute the plan.
"If you want to go to the World Cup you've got to beat the best teams, so we just need to prepare very well, but most importantly to make sure that the players stick to the game plan."
One other thing that Ellis is fully aware of is the spin-offs that will come with qualifying for the World Cup, something that could have had the South African Football Association (Safa) dilly-dallying for months before confirming her appointment as Vera Pauw's successor early this year.
For Banyana to have a better future, Ellis believes they need more players like Kgatlana, Motlhalo and skipper Janine van Wyk with experience of playing professional football for good teams overseas.
"I think qualifying for the World Cup will take us to a different level," said Ellis, a Western Cape-born coach who skippered Banyana in her prime days as a midfielder.
"We always talk about more business coming on board to help broaden the game. But more importantly it will open up opportunities for players to be scouted and go to big clubs and that is a goal for us ... that our players can make a career out of football. You cannot put that in terms of value."
Having a professional women's league in SA is also something that Safa has been postponing for years and Ellis is confident that Banyana's qualification for the World Cup will see that dream being realised.
"The national league is anticipated to start next year and if it indeed does, it will come at the right time," said Ellis.
"It will really help our national team and it will make the gap smaller from the league to international football. With all these carrots being dangled in front of us we gonna have to start grabbing them and chewing it because opportunities like these may only come once in a lifetime."