“I am very happy, full of jubilation, everything you would want to feel”, said Thembi Kgahlana, the Banyana Banyana striker on the 27th July in an interview with the SACBC. She said she is thinking especially about every person who made sure that the way is paved for Banyana, especially some of the players who have passed on as how they would feel celebrating this milestone with the current Banyana after winning the Women’s African Cup of Nations. She said she is over the moon because, “it took us to long to win this but eventually we did.”
Kgatlana made note of the fact that there were a lot of people who criticized them, “the people who don’t watch sport to understand”. “There are a lot of challenges we face along the way before we are able to be called champions” she added, also noting that it is easy for people to have an opinion when they are not in the situation, but once they are in the situation they will know what is best and what is important.
“For Banyana to be at this level we’ve always had criticism, even from our own people, especially in the two editions when we had to play against Nigeria where many people always thought Nigeria is going to win, but have proven them wrong,” she happily noted.
Responding to the question of what went through her head when she realized that the injury she sustained will rule her out of the whole tournament she said, “I am a Catholic, and I’m very strong in my faith. I understand that some things happen in life which we think we have control over and we don’t.” She said she decided that playing or not she is going to give her teammates full support. “My faith has kept me sane, and helped me not blow the injury issue out of proportion, and other things I cannot control.” Kgatlana said because of her faith, “Instead of worrying I would spend a lot of time in prayer and devotion just to have peace and understanding of the journey that I am in.”
Speaking about whether or not football teams make space for the religious dimension of their players she said it depends where one is, “My first professional contract was in the USA and there are teams that understand that there are players that draw their inspiration from their faith and every time before the game we would have devotions.”
Kgatlana then pointed out that when she was in the United States there was time for one to be able to focus on faith and religion in general because of organizations like Athletes in Action, A not-for-profit Christian sports ministry, dedicated to developing the total athlete through the integration of faith, life, and sport. But she attested that in China is a different story all together because China is different. In China she would continue to engage with people from Athletes in Action or just have her own personal devotion, “because I am a Christian and I know my journey and what to do.” In Portugal and in Turkey they would have some moments of spending time reading the Word of God.
Asked whether she ever thinks about access to sacraments when she moves to other countries she said, “I do, but I also am an open-minded person to know that some of the things I have access to in my country I won’t have access to.” There is also a challenge of language barrier like Morocco for instance, “I mean in Morocco I knew I am Catholic, but once we are in camp it’s difficult for me to just say ‘Hey I want to walk out to Church’.” In such cases she finds that it is better to make her own devotion at her own time. Kgatlana posited that there’s also an element of safety that needs to be considered especially in countries that are not friendly to Christians, so most of the time she would seek her sacraments when she is back home because she knows where to go.
Regarding possible clashes which might arise with certain practices in sport and her faith she said she has not encountered that yet, “I make my own time in the morning and evening to do my devotion and spend time with the Lord. I make sure that these don’t clash with my football activities.”
She says in Banyana prayer is part of their culture, “We pray before every training session, we pray before our matches. And that is standard, we don’t start a training session or game without prayer.” She emphasized that this would include also the devotions they have every night at around 9pm even though this moments of prayer are not compulsory, “I also understand that we are not at the same level when it comes to faith. Some days people have things that bring them to God and the other days they think they have things under control. And then you have people like me who say whether we are in control or not we are going to be in the presence of God. And that is why we have those devotions everyday in camp.” Kgatlana indicated that in other country where they don’t believe in God she would then do her prayers on her own before the training and matches, “In most cases it is when I am praying for the national team that we have moments of prayer where everyone come together, but when playing for my clubs it’s always by myself because you find that a lot of girls speak different languages, come from different cultures and belief in different things.”
She said she doesn’t know if her teammates know that she is Catholic or not, but they certainly know that she is a huge believer, “Even in my social media, even with my teammates, I do not hide that I am Catholic, I am a Christian, I do not hide anything about my faith.”
She says she evagelises to her teammates by living everyday as the sheep of God, “Doing everything I am supposed to do. Spending time with God. Living my life in dedication to the Lord…If I have a feeling of speaking to you about something that has to do with the Lord, and his love and salvation, I will not hesitate to do that because I realise that I also play a big role of being a senior player and we have a lot of young girls that are looking up to us.” Kgatlana also prays for people to be saved, to have freedom in the Lord, and to know the Lord. “I am thankful that I am living this life not only for myself but for the Lord too,” confessed Khatlana.
Thembi Khatlana is a Catholic from Mohlakeng in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg, a member of the South African Women’s National Team, Banyana Banyana, and soon she will be heading to the United States to join her new team Racing Louisville FC.