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25 May 2021 | in FISU Athletes

South African university football team reaching new heights at national levels

Ask any student-athlete about maintaining good grades while competing at a high level in sport – it’s no easy task. Take a whole team of students competing against full-time professionals in their sport, and that task becomes even more challenging.


Yet Tshwane University of Technology’s female football team have proven, and continue to prove, that a dual career is possible, with the talented squad not just competing, but vying for top honours in the recently-launched South African National Women’s League.


South Africa’s first professional female football league was founded in 2019, with the first season reaching its climax in June 2020 where, after a Coronavirus-hit campaign, the inaugural league champions were confirmed as the women’s team of Mamelodi Sundowns, one of the wealthiest clubs in Africa whose men’s team have won four of the last five national league titles, and were crowned champions of Africa’s most prestigious club competition, the CAF Champions League, just five years ago.


Yet in second place in the female standings, 11 points adrift of the all-conquering and unbeaten champions, was Tshwane University of Technology – fondly known as TUT – holding their own among South Africa’s elite.


So just how does a humble university team end up in a professional league?


“TUT started playing at regional league level, following which they achieved promotion to the provincial Sasol League,” explains Ms Tshiila Mulaudzi, who has been TUT Team Manager since 2015. “In 2018, TUT became champions of the Gauteng Province league. We then went to the national playoffs and won those as well, which is how we secured our spot in the National League.”


TUT have been a dominant force in South African women’s university football, winning all six of the last Varsity Football tournaments featuring the country’s best female university teams. Still, one would think the step up to national league level might have been quite the jump. But not so, according to team veteran Koketso Tlailane, a South African national team player who has worn the colours of TUT since 2011.


“I was not surprised that we came second, although I did want us to win the league,” she says. “Adjusting hasn't really been a problem, because we have been playing in the Sasol League for quite some time. Also, due to the level of training and competitiveness in our team, we were able to do very well and adjust easily.”


In the inaugural 2019/20 season, TUT lost just one match – against eventual champions Sundowns – and scored a joint-high 82 goals in the 21 matches played across the season. Impressive numbers, but only good enough for a runner’s up spot.


They are hoping to go one better this season, and have lured in experienced coach Anna Monate, a former South African international and interim coach for the national women’s team, to guide them to glory.


“What made me attracted to this project was my desire to take this team to a higher level of competition, and to turn their winning mentality into reality,” Monate says. “What made me really interested was their fighting spirit, but also the educational aspect – I always believe that when a child is educated and is involved in sports, this bodes well for a very sustainable life in future.”


Monate was impressed with her new team’s showing last season, and is clear what she is targeting come the end of the current campaign.


“No one in the country ever anticipated that a university team could come second in a professional league, but now I am here to go first with them,” she says, before outlining her mantra. “Discipline, dedication, determination and respect … with these all the time, we will be champions at the end of the season. My long-term goal with TUT is to have a very sustainable and successful institute in the country, continental and in the world, while also aiding the development in all their structures.”


Despite now being in the professional ranks, the 31-member TUT squad is made up of 22 students from the university, three players in their final year of high school and just six recruited from elsewhere.


The importance of education forms a key part of the team’s philosophy, however, with all the players well aware of the expectations both on and off the field.


“All our athletes know that academics and football go hand in hand,” Team Manager Mulaudzi reveals. “We also have competitions like the Varsity Football tournament which requires a 60% pass rate for a player to qualify to play, so it is important for them to balance their football and academics. We regularly access their academics and give them a break from football if the athlete is not coping with their coursework. For that reason, we have a few non-students who will always step in when the student-athletes are busy with studies.”

TUT coach Anna Monate

Tlailane, who is in the final stages of wrapping up her degree in Structural Engineering, says her professors and coaches alike are very understanding, but emphasises the importance of time management.


“Balancing your studies with football is all about time management,” she says. “I don't want to lie, it can be a challenge at times, but it’s all about discipline. My lecturers are understanding, as long as I submit everything on time, and that I attend all my classes and test days. My coaches also respect my school timetable.”


The talented defender, who cites South Africa’s fourth place finish at the Taipei 2017 Summer Universiade as one of her most memorable experiences, has her eyes firmly set on what she hopes to achieve in future.


“I still want to play overseas, play in very competitive leagues, and help bring a change to women's football in South Africa,” she says.


First though, is the small matter of the 2021 National Women’s League season, which kicked off in April, and this year features 14 clubs, three of which are university teams including University of Johannesburg, University of the Western Cape and TUT. All eyes will be on the latter to go one better than last year, and despite their first four games bringing a mixed bag of two wins, a draw and a loss, lofty but not unrealistic ambitions have been set, both individually and for the team, by their passionate team manager.


“We would love to see more of our players making the national team and signing professional contracts,” Mulaudzi says. “TUT should aim to be the best university team in the whole world.”