Smeda’s star rises with Banyana’s

A lot is going on in Leandra Smeda’s life. An integral part of a suddenly successful Banyana Banyana, she’s at the Cyprus Cup, plausibly thinking about actually being part of winning it. Afterwards, it’s off to meet her new teammates at Vittsjo GIK in the ultra-competitive Swedish Women’s League. Then there’s the small matter of a World Cup around the corner.

Surely the fruits of a lifelong dream come true, then? Not exactly.

“Growing up, the plan wasn’t to become a professional footballer. I just loved sport; I have always loved sport and played for fun,” says Smeda.

If you make a living from any sport, it’s expected that you have been tirelessly training since you could walk, motivated by a distinct vision. Even those who pushed from their late teens are rare outliers.

“Until I got my first call-up to the national team, it’s there where things took off. I started playing at a higher level and it’s there where the opportunities came along. I went with it and today I’m a professional footballer.”

That call-up came in 2009 after she was scouted at the University Sport South Africa championships. Despite deciding to take the game seriously, for years she treaded water in the Sasol Women’s League, the only local option for women footballers.

It was only last year that Smeda earned her first move to Europe, signing for Lithuanian club FK Gintra-Universitetas in June. Until then, the now 29-year-old had begun to accept that she might never play overseas.

Like many of her national teammates, Smeda’s personal success has risen parallel to Banyana’s. As the side won itself more and more public attention in 2018, so too did its players increasingly begin to find themselves as the topic of discussion at agent luncheons.

Smeda has featured in that success. Capable of playing in many positions, often finding herself out wide, she earned herself a reputation forbeing a utility player. National team coach Desiree Ellis, however, had a very specific plan and has deployed her predominantly as a defensive midfielder to great effect.

From deep, she has provided excellent cover for the backline while simultaneously injecting imagination going forward. She has been a menace in the centre, showing no hesitation when asked to put body between opponent and ball, snuffing out any time they thought they had. It’s no coincidence that Banyana conceded a mere two goals throughout their run to an African Women Cup of Nations silver medal.

The physicality her adversaries have been forced to bear is no product of chance either. Her first experience of football was on the roads of Velddrif in the Western Cape. A 10-year-old Smeda was able to “bribe” her way into playing with her brother and his friends by offering up her netball for the kickaround.

Soon the boys in her neighbourhood begun to tussle seriously with her. They were never unfairly forceful or abusive but the added intensity is still paying dividends today.

“It did help me because I was only playing with boys. I think playing with boys toughens you up a bit and when you get to play at an international level players are more physical. It won’t take you that long to adjust to the game. So I think it’s good for young girls to play with boys because it’ll help them in the future.”

A mischievous smile regularly crosses Smeda’s face as she recalls the times that followed her first kick of that netball. She might not have always envisioned being a professional but it’s obvious a passion for the game was born then and has never dimmed.

Smeda is now with Banyana in Cyprus where they played their first game of the eponymous cup against Finland on Wednesday. Last year, this competition served as a gauge that pointed out just how low they were on the global food chain. This time, it’s being seen by everyone in the camp as an opportunity to prove that their trip to France in June will be more than a sightseeing expedition.

Banyana and Smeda are both approaching their prime. At the very least, they will both soon be playing at levels neither has experienced before — exciting times for everyone with a keen interest in the development of our rising stars in the sport.

Still, one can’t help but wonder, given her clear and great talent, whether this all could have happened a lot sooner had she not left the planning to her not so clear-thinking 20-year-old self.

“Sometimes I do think about it. If maybe at an earlier age I had set my mind to becoming a professional footballer then maybe I could have gone abroad earlier. But life plans never go how we want them to. The opportunity came and I’m using it now. I’m enjoying the moment and, when I retire, I can say that I have done it all as a football player.”

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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