What doesn’t kill you: Jermaine Seoposenwe survives bigoted Lithuanian stint



It’s probably fair to assume that Šiauliai, Lithuania doesn’t occupy a high spot on most of our bucket lists. A quaint city inhabited by a little more than 100 000 people, it’s best known to most outsiders as a stopover during a pilgrimage to the Hill of Crosses — a koppie that, as the name suggests, is covered by a blanket of crosses and crucifixes.

To Banyana Banyana star Jermaine Seoposenwe, it was home.

“It was weird,” she says of her stay, struggling slightly to think of the appropriate adjective. “I think it’s very different. Like, I mean, they were part of the Soviet Union once so they still have that harsh feel to it. You know, very bland. But you take it and learn from it and you grow from it and you understand there’s certain things that you will experience when you’re away from home when you’re in Europe playing and you just have to take it in and move on with it. You have to be strong.”

At the time of our chat, Seoposenwe is relaxing at the Garden Court Hotel in Milpark during the most recent Banyana camp. It’s been almost six months since she and Nothando Vilakazi signed their first professional contracts and joined Gintra Universitetas.

The duo form part of a healthy contingent of national team players that have earned a move overseas during the last two years. From China to the United States and Australia, South African footballers have left an imprint on an eclectic list of burgeoning womens’ leagues around the globe.

Few, however, are as obscure and far-flung as Lithuania’s A Lyga.

There’s only so much preparation one can do to prepare to enter such a space. For all intents and purposes, the move was a plunge into the unknown; as much a discovery of culture as it was a footballing adventure.

What the two explorers found was not always cheery.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand how hard it is to play in Europe. Racial abuse, all of that stuff, you go through it. It’s real, people don’t understand that, but you just have to accept it and move on and know that you’re there to do a job,” a stoic Seoposenwe says.

“That’s what your team pays you for, to come out and perform every week. And that’s how life is. But it was definitely a weird experience. I mean, not to out bargain the black thing, but there was maybe one other black guy that Vila and I knew had been there.”

Baltic football soon became a 24-hour job for Seoposenwe and Vilakazi. Many locals went out of their way to remind the pair of their difference. Few tried to make them feel welcome.

As troubling as the scourge of on-field racism is — from fans and opposition players — the biggest challenge came in navigating day-to-day life. Specifically, resisting the urge to retaliate against the bigotry with expletives or any other similarly appropriate response.

“People look at you in a weird way,” Seoposenwe says. “I think what Vila and I experienced was more mentally draining for us than anything because you have to accept that you can’t react in a certain way that you would in South Africa. If you experienced racial abuse here you would then say something but it’s different there. You can’t just speak to people the way you want to because it’s not your country and you can get into trouble. You can get into an altercation that you didn’t want to get into.

“And you play for a professional team so you need to be professional, you can’t just react in a way that you would want to. So mentally It was draining to constantly remind yourself that you’re in the public eye, you can’t do something that a normal person would, or react to someone saying something racially abusive to you.”

Sitting across from her, it’s striking how blasé she seems about the whole ordeal — at least outwardly. She freely smiles and throws in a joke here and there. Her descriptions of her time abroad are often grim but her sanguine demeanor reflects someone who has few regrets about how things turned out.

The Banyana forward is also keen to insist that such experiences, footballing and otherwise, can only better prepare her for her next club and the continued duty with the national team. Besides, she says signalling out Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba, her’s is not a unique incident.

The Manchester United duo, along with Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham and Inter Milan’s Romelu Lukaku, are some of the notable names that have been on the receiving end of wave of racism that has blighted the start of the European season. The beautiful game has unfortunately always been sullied by the more backward of our society and in 2019 it’s clear that the platform’s available to them have only grown alongside social media.

Perhaps what’s most disturbing is that it’s been normalised — Seoposenwe almost seems resigned to accepting that it’s part of the day-to-day life of an African player in Europe. Of course, that doesn’t make it easier to bear.

“It’s very frustrating. I think that was definitely the worst part of it,” she says. “You just have to understand that if you act or say something, then it’s going to be blasted all over. At the end of the day you have to be professional about it. It’s very frustrating, I will say that. At the end, there was a point where I was just like, ‘oh gosh’. In one of the Champions League games I pushed one of the girls [for saying something] and I got a yellow card for that. It does build up to a point where it boils over and you act.”

Despite all of this, Seoposenwe wasn’t stricken with homesickness. In and around the national setup since she was 16, the soon-to-be 26-year-old is no stranger to travelling and has built up a resilience to the instability that comes with always being on the road.

Still, it’s unlikely she will be returning to Šiauliai. Now out of contract, she says the Gintra Universitetas chairperson approached both her and Vilakazi after their last game and asked them to return after the international break, leaving the offer open. She plans to politely decline.

The future thus remains unclear for one of Banyana’s best talents who can give little indication of where her next adventure will be. That’s largely the responsibility of her agent to figure out while she rests and reflects on the last six months. And, of course, tucks into some South African cuisine.

“I definitely need to have some curry. I need to get so my mom’s stampmielies and boontjies soup when I go to Cape Town.”

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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