/ 20 February 2009

Belle of the ball

The name Nonku Alice Motlau probably wouldn’t have raised many eyebrows just two weeks ago, but that was before she was named African Woman Footballer of the Year. The Banyana Banyana striker is now a household name.

Life has changed dramatically for the 22-year-old — as well as the women’s game in the country — following her coronation in Lagos as the queen of African football. The South African Football Association (Safa) led the bandwagon at the weekend when she was fêted as the guest speaker at the launch of the national womens’ league. Although the finer details are still to be made public, it is understood that Sasol has pledged to bankroll the league.

The Mail & Guardian spoke to the Banyana Banyana star, who was back home in Moleijie in Limpopo, over the phone about her secret to success. ”I train regularly with local male clubs and when I get on to the field with the women they simply cannot touch me,” she says.

Motlau says playing against the men has improved her game, making her much stronger and faster. But she is quick to add that she is no passenger when she is on the pitch with the boys and some of them have learned it the hard way. ”I am very competitive. The guys sometimes get embarrassed when I dribble and score as well as any of them,” she says.

With no male influence in her life while she was growing up, she was the sole breadwinner in a family of girls and fell in love with the male-dominated sport after initially pursuing it as a form of recreation. ”It was a good thing to keep me away from drugs, alcohol and other bad habits that consume teenage girls.”

It has certainly turned out to be more than a source of amusement.

Banyana Banyana assistant coach Anna Monate, who was in the national side for nine years, describes Motlau as an amazing and rare talent. ”She is an incredible player. Becoming the first South African player to receive an individual continental football award speaks volumes of her prowess with the ball,” says Monate.

Discovered at the national play-offs in 2001 when she was just 14, Motlau was immediately asked to get into the Banyana development programme. By 2006 she was a member of the senior national team.

Not too bad for a girl who began to make her mark beyond South Africa only at the 2007 Africa Women Championships in Equatorial Guinea, when she scored the winning goal against the Black Queens of Ghana in the final.

Since then she has scored an incredible 23 goals in 20 matches for Banyana Banyana, including memorable hat tricks against Zambia last year and against Angola in the Cosafa Cup.

Motlau has reason to believe that more should be done to improve woman’s football. ”We are doing better than Bafana in terms of our ranking at the moment and have a very good track record, but there is little support. There has been no womens’ league to talk about, which makes it diffucult to compete, stay fit and improve our game. They [Safa] need to take women’s football more seriously.”

Banyana’s head coach, Augustine Makalakalane, believes the recognition Matlou has received from the Confederation of African Football has been a blessing for women’s football in the country. ”There is a greater interest in womens’ football now that Motlau has been crowned the best player in Africa.

”Sasol have just come on board as the national team sponsor — it is an indication of the interest. Banyana has recently become the first African team to be invited to play in the Eight Nations Championship to be held in March in Cyprus. This opportunity will enable Matlou and some of the players to get noticed by major European clubs.”

The reigning African footballer of the year is already being talked about abroad and with her talent there is every reason to believe it’s only a matter of time before she is lost to the South African league, which is still struggling to find its feet.