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10 January 2019 | in Summer FISU World University Games, Football

South Africa’s standout Universiade footballer Kgatlana named Africa’s best

A superb 2018 has evolved into an incredible start to 2019 for talented South African footballer Thembi Kgatlana, who undoubtedly reached the peak of her young career by stealing the show at the African Football Awards ceremony on Tuesday evening.


Just two years ago, Kgatlana was head down, buried in the books at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa as she studied towards her Tourism and Management degree, and was given an opportunity to shine on the international stage as she was called up to South Africa’s Universiade team that participated at the Taipei 2017 Summer Universiade.


The wryly forward featured in all the games as her side made their way to the semi-finals, only to end up fourth at the Games after losing their bronze-medal match to Russia.


Nevertheless, Kgatlana had made her mark, and with her fledgling senior national team career taking flight, the talented footballer was then snapped up by American Women’s Soccer League club Houston Dash in February last year. Her astute play featured prominently last season in her first year as a professional.

Thembi Kgatlana receives the Women’s Player of the Year award from FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samoura alongside CAF President Ahmad Ahmad. Photo Credit ® EPA

Yet it was in her national team jersey where she shone particularly brightly. After helping her country to victory at the annual regional Cosafa Cup tournament, Kgatlana then showcased her talent to the rest of the continent at the Africa Women Cup of Nations competition, where she won four woman-of-the-match awards across the six games she played in guiding her side into the final, where they were edged out on penalties to eventual champions Nigeria. Kgatlana’s five goals saw her claim the prize for the tournament’s highest goal scorer as well as the Player of the Tournament accolade, her exploits helping South Africa qualify for the FIFA Women’s World Cup for the first time ever.


It surely couldn’t get any better for the South African, could it?


Yet it did at the glamorous African Football Awards ceremony held in the Senegalese capital of Dakar on Tuesday night, as Kgatlana was recognised for her incredible achievements over the past year by being awarded the 2018 African Women’s Player of the Year prize, becoming only the second South African player to win the prestigious award.


She supplemented that feat by also winning the 2018 African Goal of Year accolade for her fine strike against Nigeria in South Africa’s 1-0 group stage victory at the Africa Cup of Nations, capping off a memorable evening where she was able to share the stage with some of the biggest football stars in the game such as Egyptian poster boy Mohammed Salah – who claimed the men’s Footballer of the Year award – as well as his Liverpool teammate Sadio Mane.

Thembi Kgatlana celebrating with her silver medal at the Africa Women Cup of Nations. Photo Credit ® Backpagepix

Always a proponent for the upliftment of women’s football, Kgatlana said she was “honoured and privileged” to win the award in her acceptance speech, before reaching out to her fellow female footballers in South Africa.


“I dedicate this award to every female player in South Africa who is about to start their career, and all the girls who want to become champions – this is for you,” she said.


Kgatlana then took to social media to express her disbelief at winning the two awards, before thanking all those who helped her achieve the feat.


“If anyone told me that I would be an African champion at 22 years of age, I would have probably killed them because they would be selling me dreams,” she posted. “It has been a pretty tough journey but the Lord has been the centre of my life. Thank you to every single one of you who has supported me through my highs and lows.


“Thank you to the legends of the South African women's team – if it wasn’t for your persistence of creating better opportunities and making sure that the face of women's football in South Africa is recognised, people like me wouldn't have hope, wouldn’t have been inspired and wouldn’t have believed in working hard to be successful.


“Thank you to everyone who has worked with me on and off the pitch, contributing to the player and person that I am. Thank you to my family and friends and a big thank you to the whole country for believing in me. Thank you to my loving and fantastic parents for allowing me to be me and expressing my commitment to the game.”


Kgatlana, a Summer Universiade participant to Africa’s best player in the space of just 18 months, and at the age of 22, is an inspiration and role-model to all.