Thanks for the memories Modise

Portia Modise called time on her footballing career two weeks ago, but her journey to retirement has been far from easy or glamorous. The 31-year-old will now seek a career in coaching, and with the right support, Modise’s best might still be to come.  

Two weeks ago, football said goodbye to one of Africa’s dearest footballers. The first African to score 100 international goals and a near-lifelong servant of the game, South Africa’s Portia Modise called time on her footballing career earlier in the week. Having made her debut in 2000 as a 16-year-old, Modise played 119 games for South Africa, scoring 102 goals, she is a true legend of the sport in South Africa.

With club stints at Soweto Ladies, Fortuna Hjørring, Palace Super Falcons and Croesus Ladies, Modise had an illustrious and successful career. Back in 2003, she had a trial with Arsenal ladies, but saw the move curtailed due to financial issues. Still, the chance to play in Europe changed her perspective, and went some way towards helping her earn a living from the sport that she so loves, and has loved since she was little.

The greatest tragedy from her career will be that she never managed to really make a living from it. Up until the height of her career, she never managed to buy her own house or car, with Banyana’s players earning modest bonuses when representing the country. A R1-million prize at the South African Sports Awards last year has gone some way towards helping Modise achieve one of her dreams of owning a house, but the financial struggles she has had to deal with is on top of other challenges with her identity. Openly gay, Modise boldly told her mother that she was not a girl, nor was she interested in girl’s things or toys. She joined a boys’ soccer team, but ran into trouble when birth certificates were required for registration. These, of course, said that she was a girl, and the coach didn’t even know. Industrious as ever, Modise asked the boy of the same age who lived next door for his certificate, who obliged. Of course she would later have to make peace with the fact that she was defined as “female” and had to join the female footballing ranks, something which immediately pegged her back.

While Modise has always said that she is one of the lucky few who was always supported by those around her, even when playing with the boys, her playing career has not been without struggles over her sexuality.

She quit international football in 2008 after falling out with the coach at the time, Augustine Makalakalane. He was later accused of sexual harassment and homophobia and eventually sacked. She was recalled in 2012, but one has to wonder how much more she could have achieved on the international scene, had she not been in exile for four years. She played a key role in South Africa to reach the Africa Championship finals in that same year.

Aside from this one challenge, Modise says she always felt “normal” when playing with the boys. Her mother admits that she felt some bitterness with her “acting like a boy”, but her mind changed completely when she saw her play for Soweto Ladies for the first time, and Modise is outspoken on the issues of sexuality and the challenges that those who are gay have to deal with.

“Being gay, sometimes people think we are not normal, and think that by being around people, they will be gay too. But it’s not like I chose to be gay; I was born with it. But I’m comfortable in my life and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t happy,” Modise has said.

On the field, though, her star shone brightly, and she has received a fair bit of international recognition. In 2005, she was nominated for the Fifa Player of the Year award, alongside Nigeria’s Perpetua Nkwocha, one of just two African players to receive the nomination in that year. 

In 2006, she picked up the Player of the Tournament award at the AWC and, a few months later, she was voted as one of the top three players in the 2006 Confederation of African Football Women’s Footballer of the Year award. In 2012, she was one of three nominees for the 2012 African Women’s Footballer of the Year award.

Women’s football still lags behind in coverage both locally and internationally, but those who did have the privilege of seeing Modise in action will know that she had skill and inherent talent beyond that of many of her male counterparts. 

Her ability to judge trajectory, or “bend it” will remain unparalleled in the women’s game for years to come – the perfect example of that being her 45-yard hit during Banyana Banyana’s maiden appearance at the Olympics back in 2012. South Africa lost that match 4-1 and it was their only goal of the tournament, but it showed her ability to a global audience.

“I’ll never forget that goal. I saw early in the game the goalkeeper’s weakness was that she was always coming off her line, so I took a shot and it came off. It worked out, and I’m really proud,” she said when recalling the goal.

But for much of her career, Modise has been more than a servant to the game. While one should tread carefully when exalting sports stars, Modise was and will remain a strong, positive role model for young girls in South Africa and beyond, and she leaves behind a legacy that stretches far beyond the pitch and a legacy which she will carry on as she pursues a full-time career in coaching. 

She already has some experience in the role, having spent time with Orlando Pirates academy in 2006, and will now be mentored by the South African Football Association to achieve a long-term goal of becoming a full-team coach. With the right support, Modise’s best years might still be to come, but her wizardry on the pitch will certainly be missed. –  Daily Maverick

June 2015
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