Banyana captain earns her stripes in the US

Janine van Wyk controls the ball during the Group E first round match between Sweden and South Africa during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Buda Mendes/Getty)

Janine van Wyk controls the ball during the Group E first round match between Sweden and South Africa during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Buda Mendes/Getty)

More than 140 international appearances and captaining her team for the last five years meant nothing when Janine van Wyk showed up for her first day of practice with her team in the United States.

As the Banyana Banyana skipper found out the hard way, life in the US National Women’s Soccer League is anything but accommodating.

“No one greeted me on my first day of training,” Van Wyk says from her new home in Houston where she now plays in the heart of defence for the Houston Dash. “Most of my new teammates probably don’t know about my achievements. They probably don’t care. Here in the States, you have to earn respect.”

And so Van Wyk shook off her natural inclination to be personable with her colleagues and set about her work as a professional athlete. In her first game, the Banyana skipper helped shut out the Chicago Red Stars in a 2-0 victory for the Dash.

The following week, with Van Wyk missing the visit of the Seattle Reign because of illness, her team shipped five goals.

When she returned for an away trip to Washington to take on the Spirit, Van Wyk was once again instrumental in keeping a clean sheet, which saw Houston claim a 1-0 win, their first ever in the nation’s capital.

“I’m now doing my talking on the field,” Van Wyk says. “Other players have told me I bring composure to the team and now ask for my advice on their game. I think they’re starting to recognise my value and abilities.”

Though Van Wyk could not keep her perfect defensive record intact last week as the Dash went down 0-2 in the return match in Chicago, the veteran centre back is confident she is finding her feet in the fast-paced league.

“I feel more at ease now with a few games under my belt though I am still coming to terms with how quick everything is over here,” Van Wyk says, expressing how every team in the league opts for a high-pressing game and route-one counter attacking plan. “I’ve had to raise my fitness and physicality.”

Having honed her skills against boys from a young age, Van Wyk is not one to shy away from a challenge outside of her comfort zone.

And having settled in somewhat, she’s keen for other South African footballers to ply their trade in the US. Van Wyk has been in contact with video analysts back home and is compiling a showcase of local talent for the scouts and coaches at her new club.

“I look around at all the teams and there are definitely at least five or six South African players that would add value to any of them,” Van Wyk says with confidence. “It’s just a matter of getting them the exposure. If we didn’t play a friendly against the USA just before the Olympics last year, I wouldn’t be here as a pro footballer in Houston.”

Van Wyk speaks warmly about her experience of playing in front of tens of thousands of fans every week and coming up against world-class talent such as the Canadian Christine Sinclair and the legendary Brazilian Marta Vieira da Silva, both of whom are on the shortlist for the BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year award.

And though she bemoans the “unfriendly atmosphere” of her new home she is relishing the opportunity to prove her worth.

“It has been difficult adjusting but I’m so grateful to be here. I’m experienced and tough enough to succeed. As long as I put in the work, I know I can shine.”

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