Kaylin Swart: from World Cup to day-job and long bus journeys on game day | South Africa women’s football team

new balance

Only three weeks after Kaylin Swart and her national teammates flew from Wellington to Sydney, as the first South African senior side to compete in the knockout rounds of a World Cup, she was on a bus, traveling four and a half hours north of Johannesburg to Limpopo, to play a league match on the same day as the drive.

“It’s wild,” she tells the Guardian. “I tell people I am a full-time worker and a part-time footballer. A lot of us have to take unpaid leave to play matches. But come game day you would never say we are not full-time players.”

Like many of her international teammates Swart maintains a day job – hers is as a sports coach and administration assistant at a school – and does most of her training in the evenings, juggling match-day commitments with real life. Sometimes it can become too much to handle and 18 months ago she considered quitting the game completely. “I had a dip in form and, at that moment, I wanted to give up football and continue with my job. Then I thought if I could just find the love for the game, find my passion again and have fun with it, who knows what could happen?”

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What happened is that Swart had the opportunity to “literally live my dream”, playing to near-capacity crowds in New Zealand and Australia, starting every game for South Africa ahead of her longtime friend Andile Dlamini and pulling off 14 saves in four matches – the most by an African goalkeeper. “This World Cup was a testament to all the hard work I’ve put in,” she said.

Now, it’s back down to earth.

South Africa’s goalkeeper Kaylin Swart tips a shot over the bar during South Africa’s World Cup round of 16 match against Netherlands in Sydney in August 2023.
Kaylin Swart tips a shot over the bar during South Africa’s World Cup round of 16 match against the Netherlands. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

For Swart and the rest of the South African squad, although their World Cup participation fees will be a welcome boost to their bank balances, they cannot secure sustained sources of income from their clubs or football federation. Their domestic league has yet to be professionalised despite calls from some of South Africa’s most important corners for that to happen. The country’s sports minister, Zizi Kodwa, has pleaded directly with the South African Football Association (SAFA) and corporate South Africa to fast-track their plans to establish a professional women’s league. Speaking at the launch of cricket’s professional women’s league two weeks ago, Kodwa praised Cricket South Africa for being the first federation to issue contracts for domestic players and said: “Other federations could learn a thing or two from you.”

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He also used the occasion to lambast SAFA for what he called a “failure of leadership,” before the World Cup, which led Banyana Banyana to boycott their only warm-up, against Botswana. The entire 23-member World Cup squad refused to play on what they said was a substandard pitch at the Tsakane Stadium, east of Johannesburg, a venue that does not host men’s Premier League football. On SAFA insistence, the coach, Desiree Ellis, was forced to manage a hastily assembled team, who lost 5-0. “We do not wish to see any team go through what Banyana Banyana went through,” Kodwa said. In response a SAFA spokesperson said: “We will meet with the minister after the 2023 CAF Women’s Champions League COSAFA Qualifiers next week.”

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Swart stands by the team’s stance on the day. “We weren’t ready to compromise our health and safety and we respected ourselves enough to know that we expected better than that. A lot of it was about us not feeling respected. The field wasn’t the greatest. The fact that they thought it was OK for us to play on it, was something we were not happy with. It was just about us being respected as athletes.”

Asked if the team feared for their playing futures, Swart said they didn’t think that far ahead at the time but hoped their actions would set the tone for future collective action. “A lot of us had that feeling of what we’re doing was big, but I don’t think any of us really thought about the consequences,” she said. “What was beautiful was that we stood together and we knew what we were fighting for. We fought 23-strong. We knew if we stuck together no one could break us and that translated on to the field. Our bond is the strongest it’s ever been. We were so tired of being stepped on and not being heard.”

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But now, a month after returning home from the World Cup, that’s exactly what could be happening. Swart’s insistence that a professional league is a “need, not a want any more”, has not grown legs despite South Africa pushing ahead with their bid to host the 2027 World Cup. Instead the money continues to flow the other way.

Last week, the SAFA invited guests to an “exciting announcement”, in collaboration with Hollywoodbets, which is the title sponso of the women’s league. Whispers suggested it was the much anticipated professional league but it turned out to be backing for a men’s regional league, which is intended to benefit teams in rural areas. While that has its merits, there are fears the women’s game could continue to be left behind.

“We need to elevate our sport so we can close the gap between us and the players playing abroad. Professionalising our league will give us more focus,” Swart said. “None of us want to work. I’d love to play football all day. And nobody wants to drive on the same day as a big game but it’s also nice. When things are going to be great, we are going to look back at all of the struggles and know we made it.”

new balance

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