Banyana Banyana’s head coach, Desiree Ellis, spoke candidly in an interview on Radio 702 with Bongani Bingwa on the women’s performance at the world cup. Coach Ellis mentioned how their performance against the top teams in the world should be enough to push forward the implementation of a professional women’s football league. This comment raises some important questions around the prioritisation of the development of women’s football in South Africa.
Believe it or not, South Africa does not have a professional women’s football league. Presently, the highest level of women’s football in South Africa is played in the Hollywoodbets Super League. This is the South African Football Association’s National Women’s League, which was formed in 2019. By contrast, the Premier Soccer League (PSL) is an established professional league where men have been playing at the professional level since 1996.
But what is meant by ‘professional’ football? Merriam-Webster defines professional in several ways, but the core of it can be summed up as the following: to play a sport professionally, one should be engaged in an activity as a permanent career which yields sufficient financial gain that one may rely on that activity as their primary source of income. The average salary of a PSL player is about R100 000 per month, according to several sources (including The South African, Buzz SouthAfrica, and Newshub360). Thus, on-season or off-season, the men have their financial support and security via the PSL. The same cannot be said for the women, as Coach Ellis stated that some of the ladies play football part time. An SABC News article by Sipho Kekana stated that “female football players from national, to provincial and regional clubs still train late in the afternoon and in the evenings with players who have to go to their respective jobs first, with many relying on stipends for the days they spend in camp and not receiving any salaries”. A friendly reminder that money makes the world go round and that if I were a man, I’d be the man. Thanks a lot, patriarchal capitalist society.
Apart from money, what truly separates a professional league from what South Africa has to offer the women now is constant training and playtime at a high level. The PSL has seven tournaments played underneath it and 16 professional football clubs playing in the top tier. This allows Bafana to face off multiple times throughout the year, which translates to training all year round. The men’s game is afforded the opportunity to consistently grow, whereas the women’s game stalls in the off- season and needs to be reignited when they hit the field again. Instead of taking two new steps forward, the women must play catch up and undo the backward steps they may have taken due to an inability to prioritise football.
The heartbreaking truth is that Banyana Banyana does not receive nearly enough support or investment from the government, South African corporations and even their fans. This is despite being the number two team in Africa and one of three African teams that qualified for the Women’s World Cup. Ideally, Banyana’s display at this year’s World Cup will accelerate the establishment of a professional league underneath SAFA, or at least the professionalisation of the current Hollywoodbets league. Furthermore, the success of the team will hopefully garner larger sponsors for the women’s game.
However, as a fan and avid women supporter, what can be done? The average Banyana fan cannot dish out millions of Rands to secure Banyana’s livelihoods. We can tune in to their matches, post about them on social media and grow their fanbase online by supporting their social media accounts. The level of commitment and engagement shown by supporters towards a team signals to big businesses that they are worth the investment. Think of the Springboks currently being sponsored by every South African corporation under the sun.
The grim reality is that money talks. The women need a professional league to earn a salary, to ensure a living. A professional football league needs capital investment. Capital investment comes from sponsors. And sponsors need to believe that their investment will have a significant return. To achieve this, the South African population needs to show a vested interest in the women’s game, which means a shift in the mindset of the viewers.
The women’s game needs to be met with the same excitement and numbers as the men’s game. The current fanbase (consisting of both men and women) needs to double down on their support for the women, and the women who are on the outside looking in need to strut their best ‘I’m a girl’s girl’ stuff. If this energy can be harnessed and committed to the women’s game at the national, provincial, and regional level, Banyana will be a step closer to success. Our women want to put their best foot forward on the world stage, and what they need to make this possible is the backing of their nation.