Mthandi’s waiting in the wings
Unlike us, the media and the public, Desiree Ellis has to look beyond the World Cup. While we daydream about the trip to France, the coach knows she’ll be left with the fallout, good or bad.
Ahead of the friendly against Jamaica last Sunday, Ellis waxed lyrical about how many members of the squad had an added desire to fight for World Cup qualification, saying this is their last opportunity because they won’t be around for the next one.
“I think the coach is looking for younger players to be in the team for a long time and to gel with the older players and learn from the older players,” says Amanda Mthandi, herself one such young player.
“Once they’ve retired then we know we don’t have to start afresh with the foundation.
Instead, we can continue where they left off.”
The position Mthandi occupies can be an uncomfortable one — the weight of her promise to excel in the future lingers, but doesn’t eliminate the pressure to perform in the here and now.
The 22-year-old striker is not bothered. She understands that this is part of the journey and her trajectory is still pointed firmly upwards.
That journey began when she was six years old. After being recruited into a kickaround with her cousins, her parents immediately recognised her talent and enrolled her in an academy. For the next six years at Orlando Pirates she found it hard to excel — the teams were mixed and fewer and fewer girls signed up each year. There was no dream to be a footballer because it couldn’t happen.
“My love of football kept me going. It wasn’t until I started playing with the other girls’ teams [that I began to dream]. While I was playing with the boys I didn’t even know if there were any teams [for girls]. But once I got there I said: ‘Ja, it’s time to push myself and see how far along I am compared to them.’”
Mthandi spent the next decade getting her name known in women’s football circles. It was a grind; there was no quick blow-up to success that allowed her to coast on reputation.
“I even played for the U-20s but we never went to any World Cup because Nigeria would always beat us at the crucial stages,” she says regretfully.
Her first chance to revel in the national spotlight came last year when her side, the University of Johannesburg, won the University Sports South Africa football tournament, a competition that earns teams qualification to the national women’s football league. Mthandi was named player of the tournament.
To cap off a great year of personal achievement, a national call-up to Banyana ahead of the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations followed.
Despite eventually coming on to score in her competitive debut in the 7-1 thrashing of Equatorial Guinea, Mthandi had to make do with starting on the bench during the historic run to the final and into the World Cup.
She remained stoic while forced to watch helplessly in the tense final against old foe Nigeria.
“There was one thing I told myself: ‘If I do get an opportunity to play, I’m going to score and be remembered, and the rest will fall into place,’” she says. “I want to show the coach that I’m eager to play and that if I do get the chance to start or I come on as a sub, I will give 110% and prove that I can play in the position.
“It was a bummer that we lost. We could have beaten Nigeria in open play, but unfortunately in went to penalties and we lost.”
The development of a football player is strange. You work for years to become a star, only to find yourself in a new set-up and have to do it all over again. Working in Mthandi’s favour is her ability to play as a winger or a forward, having regularly played both positions at club level. With Ellis nailing down the last few seats on the plane to France, such versatility could be invaluable.
“Everyone is going the extra mile,” Mthandi says of the squad. “We don’t want to go there and make fools of ourselves. We want to go there and show them that we can also play.
“Everyone wants to go so the competition is a bit tough. No one wants to stay behind, we all see ourselves in France. But it’s a good thing because we push each other to the limit.”
That, presumably, is exactly the atmosphere Ellis would like to foster. Judging by her words, Ellis is here for the long haul and has an extended plan that involves blooding the next generation. Just how large Mthandi figures into that vision will be established in the next few crucial months.