Linda Motlhalo interview: People get ready – Return of South Africa’s super-steppers

Photo: Roland Osbeck (

A second FIFA Women’s World Cup for South Africa arrives shortly with Banyana Banyana yearning to intensify their impact this time around. Sure to be at the heart of their efforts is Linda Motlhalo, dreaming of lifting spirits and keeping heads spinning.

With South Africa’s historic Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON) success last year came a message from Linda Motlhalo. Shared online in the following weeks, it was a post prompted by joy, but a sense also of an invisible weight having been removed from her shoulders.

Among her country’s long-time standout names, the creative talent referenced the 2018 final in the same tournament, when she had seen her decisive penalty in the shootout with Nigeria saved. While teammate Lebo Ramalepe and Nigeria captain Onome Ebi had missed the mark altogether with their attempts, the hurt feels all the more personal as the last taker.

Her 94th-minute winner against Zambia to take them to the 2022 final could therefore not have been more fitting: a penalty nestled sweetly out of the goalkeeper’s reach, and after all the additional tension of a pitchside VAR review from the referee. Commenting how those around her had expected her to dance, her celebration instead was one of stillness that she could not explain.

South Africa’s number ten, who had also scored from the spot in the group win against Burundi, recalls the sensation as she prepared to step up in Casablanca.

“The feeling, I was numb! I did not know what I was feeling.

“My legs, my knees were shaking, but I just told myself, ‘I have to do it. This is the responsibility that I have – I need to take it.’”

Their long-awaited first title came after a 2-1 win over hosts Morocco, with over 50,000 watching at Rabat’s Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium. Playing the entirety of the final, Linda later managed to lift herself from the exhaustion she was feeling to dance to Amapiano songs with teammates in the elation-filled hours that followed.

Music is something important in Banyana Banyana; it brings us together,” she explains. “One may feel down, but once we start singing, once we start dancing, we all become happy, and we all connect in that way.”

“We listen to a South African genre called Amapiano. That’s what we listen to, and there’s different kinds of artists.”

Locked into a log-drum-infused groove, the African champions are out to bless the world later this month with the same uplifting freshness and steady-building exuberance as Amapiano itself. As some of their fellow airport visitors have witnessed on occasions, they are a team made of rhythm, and anything but hesitant to show it.

Potential for collective power aside, music is as much a place of private emotion and accessibility. For Randfontein native Linda, it was always present back in Badirile growing up.

“(The first music I had) has to be gospel music, because my mom listened to that a lot of times, and my mom is a pastor. I listen to a lot of gospel, and Amapiano; my favourite artist is Musa Keys.

“I always get nervous before a game, and gospel music helps; it helps me calm down. Once I’ve listened to the gospel, I’m calm, and I’m in the moment now, I’m ready to go play.”

Glasgow City’s January signing is currently in New Zealand for what will be her career’s second World Cup. The 25-year-old was born exactly a week after South Africa’s final group game at the 1998 men’s tournament in France, the nation’s very first World Cup.

Scoring for Bafana Bafana in the second of those games, a 1-1 with Denmark in Toulouse, was a 20-year-old Benni McCarthy, nutmegging Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel for South Africa’s first World Cup goal in history. Back here in 2023, Cape Town rapper YoungstaCPT (with Shaney Jay) recently dedicated a track to the UEFA Champions League-winning former Porto striker.

Linda is asked which artist she would want to put together a song in her name one day.

“It would have to be a local artist; it’s more relatable, in a way. I’d say…Young Stunna.

“Young Stunna or Musa Keys. Or Mellow & Sleazy.”

Two years prior to their World Cup debut, the men’s team had celebrated a landmark Cup of Nations triumph, in front of 80,000 in Johannesburg, and in that iconic, ‘90s-tastic Kappa kit. With Banyana Banyana now arriving in New Zealand in the afterglow of their own continental glory, Linda considers what the achievement gives them, going into this competition.

“For so many years, we’ve come short; we’ve always come second. We’re so close yet so far, and it finally happened.

“It opened a lot of opportunities; sponsors want to be part of our national team. This is the second time we go to the World Cup, so we know how it kind of feels, but it’s really important for us to not just go to the World Cup and add numbers, but to actually be part of the World Cup.

“So, I’m looking forward to that.”

A dark cloud that never feels too far from reappearing in the women’s game seems to be present in all too many of the teams’ respective stories at this tournament. The mention of not just wanting to play for something greater, but actively having to, is by now long past exhausting for all who care about the game, though for nobody more than players and staff.

For Banyana Banyana, a dispute with the South African Football Association over conditions in preparation for this competition, and related contracts and bonuses, led to the World Cup-selected players boycotting a send-off game at home to Botswana. A resolution for now was seemingly reached after a donation from the Motsepe Foundation.

Despite the off-field plight, the team comes into the tournament with justifiable on-field belief. Linda was boosted further by a champagne moment in her club career two months ago, as her first half-season at Glasgow City culminated in a dramatic SWPL 1 title win.

It was the nimble-footed wide player who squared for Lauren Davidson to bag a stoppage-time winner against Rangers at Ibrox, leaving City the last ones standing in a three-team battle on the final day with their opponents and Celtic. A first title under club legend Leanne Ross was the perfect conclusion, though Linda had already been finding enough to help her feel at home in Scotland.

“I’ve adjusted well, yes, it’s been fun. What has been easy, I would say, is the people here.

“They’re very nice people, I didn’t even struggle to gel with them, and the coaches as well, they’re very accommodating, so that was the easy part. The hard part was playing on artificial grass every week; that has been very difficult because I’m used to playing on the grass.

“I’m still adjusting to how the team plays and understanding the system. Bit by bit, I’m getting to how they perform, so I think I’m happy with how I’ve been doing.”

The 16-time champions are also the club that long-time South Africa captain Janine Van Wyk (sadly absent for this World Cup) had a spell with back in 2020/21. Since joining from Djurgården in Sweden, Linda credits American defender and flatmate Erin Greening (now confirmed as leaving the club) for helping her to settle.

She also had reason to feel thankful when the typical request of an initiation song to perform for teammates never came. With Jenna Clark the player she names for running the team’s music, the young Scotland defender’s move this week to Liverpool leaves more than just an on-field void.

With the national team, a touch of squad rotation in that regard serves them well.

“It changes all the time, but the one who holds the speaker, it’s always our captain, Fifi, Refiloe (Jane).”

Their love for an instinctive dance step after a goal is no secret. Linda believes that the scorer of both Banyana Banyana efforts in last year’s WAFCON final is also their smoothest operator (well, at least top two…).

“It’s me, and…Hildah (Magaia)!”

While she has never yet been to a concert, Linda’s answer to the regular question of which artist from all-time she would choose to see perform is Michael Jackson. If she was to record a song of her own, meanwhile, with any teammate from her career, first refusal on that collaboration would go to one third of South Africa’s goalkeeping contingent for this World Cup.

“It would definitely be Andile Dlamini; she loves singing, she loves music, so it would definitely be her.”

Despite never yet tackling their most important role (changing-room DJ), Linda’s importance to the national team now is beyond doubt. Having featured in the 2016 Olympic tournament in Brazil as an 18-year-old, she was still in the category of young player when the World Cup came around four years ago.

While her involvement in that tournament was hampered by injury, in any case, she feels on a different footing overall this time.

“There’s definitely more responsibility on my shoulders, but like you said, I’ve experienced being young, and I’ve seen people who were older guiding me. Now, I know what to do to young players.”

At what was her debut tournament, she played in all three games at the 2016 Olympics (under current Republic of Ireland coach Vera Pauw), the highlight of which was earning a goalless draw with hosts Brazil. A club career currently spanning five countries also provides a substantial sample size, so she considers the coaching style that she believes is most effective for her.

“What’s best for me is for the coach to be honest with me; if I’m not performing, tell me that I’m not performing and come with solutions. Honesty is the best thing for me.”

She is asked which coach has seemed to understand her the most.

I think with the junior teams, it would be Sheryl Botes, and the senior team would be Vera Pauw. I think Vera had the player-coach relationship; she knew how to deal with players and what to say to them.

“She understood the players.”

Prior to first moving overseas, Linda played for the club started by the aforementioned Janine Van Wyk, JVW FC. Alongside the defender, and forward Thembi Kgatlana, she would form a trio of South African players at the NWSL’s Houston Dash.

Now back in the US with Racing Louisville, Kgatlana was a teammate of Linda again at China’s Beijing BG Phoenix in 2019; a jump into the unknown made infinitely easier.

“Fortunately, I was with my best friend, Thembi, and with the language barrier, we had a translator, so it was a bit easy for us. What I enjoyed most about China would be food!”

As Banyana Banyana target a World Cup performance sizzling with style, they call upon players from clubs back home, in Mexico, Spain, Belarus, Italy, South Korea, and of course, Scotland. A modicum of familiarity is set to come Linda’s way when they begin in Wellington (23rd July) against Sweden, her home for three years with Djurgården.

Argentina and Italy then follow, in a group that perhaps holds more possibility than most for a surprise.

“We are definitely the underdogs,” believes Linda. “Because we know Sweden, they’re number two in the world now, they’ve been doing really, really well, and our first game is against them.”

“We need to win a game, and just do our best.”

As in 2019, they will be led by former South Africa midfielder Desiree Ellis. A sumptuous strike from Thembi Kgatlana for an early lead against Spain in game one would be the high point of that tournament, with defeats in each encounter from a group also including China PR and Germany.

While they are no longer newcomers, the competition they will soon begin is a platform holding boundless potential – if they can leave enough of an impression. In front of the watching world, Linda’s wish is for the best of their on-field flair and fluency to shine through.

“I just hope that they see how confident we are, how free we are when we play, and that football makes us happy. Just being free and being confident.”

It is the outlook she continues to carry in her own career. Winning trophies, though, is eternally addictive, especially when achieved in circumstances as pulsating as Glasgow City’s recent league success.

Through her club career alone, Linda has now lived on four separate continents, already bringing the kind of wider-world discovery that many never come close to. Then there are the connections with teammates from around the globe, for someone who grew up as an only child, often wishing for a sibling.

Linda is asked whether continuing to live in new countries carries the biggest appeal, or if there is desire to make somewhere a long-term ‘home from home,’ at least as much as the infamous uncertainty of her profession will allow.

“I think it would be just reaching my full potential. I know I’m still young, but that is one part of it, and being in a club where I’m happy, I’m performing, and they believe in me.”

Beyond the rigours of a demanding season, meanwhile, style and expression remain at the forefront of everyday life for the ‘Randfontein Ronaldinho.’

“I love dancing, that’s one. I love clothes, I love fashion.”

How much slickness would she bring to this regular final question? Continuing a theme of over a decade in these interviews, Linda is placed into the role of player-manager for a fantasy 5-a-side game.

Any teammates from her career so far are eligible to complete her line-up, with no requirement to base her choices on the ‘best’ she has played with. The focus instead is on suggesting mere examples of those she has found enjoyment from playing alongside.

Headed up by their captain for this tournament, here comes a Banyana Banyana bonanza, with Linda probably needing to start from the sideline to make room!

“Refiloe Jane. Thembi Kgatlana.

“Janine (Van Wyk)! Janine would be there.

“Kaylin (Swart), the goalkeeper. And…Amanda Dlamini.”

To catch each of these interviews, you can follow: @chris_brookes

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