LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – On Wednesday, Racing Louisville FC announced that it had signed South African star Thembi Kgatlana to a 2-year contract, paying a transfer fee to acquire the 26-year old from Atlético Madrid.
The South African national team standout’s name is pronounced, “Tim-bee Cot-lawn-uh.” She is set to arrive after her team completes the Africa Women Cup of Nations, which started last weekend and finishes with the final on July 23.
“We were looking for a winger/forward who has a good first touch and is not afraid to dribble and attack – and we have found exactly that with Thembi,” said Racing coach Kim Björkegren. “What’s also important to us is that we signed not just a good player but a good teammate. Thembi always has a smile on her face and loves football, and she is ready to help the team as soon as she arrives in Louisville.”
She scored South Africa’s first-ever World Cup goal in 2019, and started twice for South Africa as a 20-year-old in the 2016 Olympic Games. She has 22 goals in 63 appearances for her national team.
The diminutive goal-scorer is said to introduce “an element of madness” into games. She was, early on, an end-game specialist, brought in to create havoc and provide late goals.
Here are 5 things to know about Racing’s newest international standout:
1). She played against boys for most of her young life. Girls playing football was not an established concept during her childhood. But she fell in love with the game shortly after being introduced to it, and would not be dissuaded – despite many efforts, including from her parents and even her school principal at one point. At home, she was reprimanded for playing football, beaten if she came home with dirty clothes, even grounded. She would sneak out the window of her room to play against the boys on a gravel pitch. When her parents locked the window, she’d sneak out another way. Eventually, her parents realized they could not dissuade their daughter from her dreams.
2). This will be her second stint in the NWSL. She played for the Houston Dash in 2018, making 16 appearances and scoring two goals. She left the team to pursue a lucrative opportunity to play for the Beijing BG Phoenix FC in 2019, where she scored 6 goals in 16 appearances.
“I’m very excited to have this opportunity to return to the NWSL with Racing Louisville,” Kgatlana said. “It has always felt like there is unfinished business for me in the league, and I can’t wait to get started. From the moment I spoke with Kim, it was clear that it is an exciting project. I joined Beijing BG Phoenix shortly after he had left and heard only good things, so it was an easy decision. I look forward to seeing everyone after the Cup of Nations!”
3). She left her team in Portugal over a pay cut. During the pandemic season of 2020, team officials with SL Benfica in Portugal asked her and other women’s players to take a pay cut. Kgatlana asked if the club’s men’s players were being asked to do the same, and when told that they weren’t, she informed team leadership that she was leaving the club.
“I felt that if I were to stay at Benfica and accept the salary cut, it would be an injustice,” she said. “Not just a personal injustice, but an injustice to all the women who will come after me. The decisions I take can set a precedent for them. Sometimes in life, it is all about money, but there are situations where dignity is more important than money. It starts with knowing your worth. . . . I personally know I have worked hard to earn what I earn, and I will not allow anyone to reduce me, especially if the reason for me being reduced is the fact that I am a woman. I felt I had to take a stand for all women everywhere. I felt I had to set the example of being loyal to myself.”
4). She set up a foundation in her hometown. The Thembi Kgatlana Foundation was registered in 2019 with the slogan, “My Success, Our Success.” She sponsors a women’s tournament in Mohlakeng, with cash prizes for teams. The foundation distributes needed items in schools, shoes, feminine hygiene products, school supplies. She provides soccer balls for school teams in South Africa.
She built her parents a dream home in her hometown, and has tried to use her celebrity in South Africa as a positive for young fans. She has marshaled the sponsorship of Nike and others in an effort to make improvements in her home country and elsewhere.
5). She was Africa’s footballer of the year in 2019. Winning the award with her father present was one of her proudest moments, having grown up in the way she did, a mischievous child always getting in trouble, often for playing football itself.
You can read her life story in a book titled, “Strike a Rock: The Thembi Kgatlana Story,” available on Amazon.
It ends with this passage:
“When I go out onto the field, do you know what I’m thinking about? I’m thinking about the people back home. Our people face thousands of problems every day. . . . We come from a place of deep poverty. Some of our people pay what they have and travel thousands of kilometers to come watch us play. Some even walk. For some people, even if it is just one, watching one good game of football can make their week. It is 90 minutes when there are no problems. The problems will still be there after the game, but during the match, it is only football – it is pure. Football is beyond problems. Some may say it is just a game, but many people invest their hearts into this game, so the least I can do, for my people, for the Black girl child, is to always play my heart out, no matter how difficult the game, no matter how unlikely the odds.”
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