Part I: Portia Modise is impossible
In the second match of Group F Women's soccer at the 2012 London Olympics, South Africa looked like they were en route to a humiliating defeat. At the hands of Sweden, Banyana Banyana ("the girls," as they are commonly known) were down 3-0, their rugged form of defense undone by typically clinical Swedish finishing, which, in its execution, calls to mind the efficiency and clean lines of an Ikea table. In the 60th minute, Portia Modise, Banyana's on-pitch poet in chief, conjured up something remarkable. From a counterattack one of the Swedish players slipped and surrendered possession, the South Africans recycled the ball and it fell to their taliswoman. Modise took the slightest of touches with her left foot before doing a half-pirouette with the ball onto her right. Andisiwe Mgcoyi, wearing jersey No. 17, would cut through in front, making a dummy run to the left as if disguising what she knew was about to happen.
Two more touches from Modise before she unleashed a rocket. The ball seemed to defy the rules of physics, swerving right then slightly left before dipping. From 45 yards out, straight into the back of the net. By the time Swedish keeper Hedvig Lindhal realized what had just happened, the South Africans were on the sideline celebrating. Banyana went on to lose the game 4-1 but what was supposed to be Sweden's coming-out party where they cemented their Olympic credentials was ruined by a five-foot-four girl from Soweto with stubby feet. Back home the following day, Modise's goal would be touted by pundits as a moment of magic, of wonder. But to call it that is to miss the point. It is to imply that some divine intervention was at play. For many, via replays, this would be the first and last time they'd see Modise in this state of alchemy. What they wouldn't know is that she's been doing this all her life.
"Football is a team sport," Modise tells me. "People like to talk about titles and what you've won but at the end of the day you play for and with your team and not just for yourself. That's why I prefer Messi over Ronaldo. He plays for the team."
If Portia Modise were a man, she'd have the world at her feet. The 33-year-old, who retired from the game in 2015, has racked up some unbelievable numbers over the years. In 124 international games she has scored a staggering 101 goals. More than Messi (57) or Ronaldo (68), or any other male player still playing the game for that matter. She has found the back of the net more than three times as much as South Africa's top male marksman, Benni McCarthy (32).
But it's not just that the numbers alone are impressive; it's the circumstances surrounding them. Modise retired at 31 to focus on coaching; most players retire at 35. She also once took a four-year gap between appearances because of a falling out with the coach (more on that later). She played in a professionalized league for only two seasons; the rest of the time she spent languishing in the humdrum of the South African women's football, which is not particularly well organized.
"Portia Modise is impossible," says sports analyst and commentator Sky Tshabalala. "There is no other way to put it. People have this perception that women's soccer is easy but that isn't true. You can't score 100 international goals cause you're lucky. Portia was a competitor, she is fierce that way."
Modise winning South Africa's Sports Star of the Year at the SA Sports Awards. Photo by GovernmentZA/CC BY-ND 2.0
Football in South Africa after the 2010 FIFA World Cup occupies a weird place in the public psyche. We are heralded as one of the best tournament venues in the world and billions are pumped into the sport yearly. And yet, accomplished female players like Modise barely get a stipend for international games and are often forced to play in amateur tournaments and work day jobs because there isn't a single competitive structure for women's football in the country.
But more than the infrastructure, memory in South African Football is selective. The contributions of women in general and black women in particular are constantly erased. Their excellence in this hyper-masculine world is an unwelcome inconvenience. When I ask Modise how it feels to see male players who've done less and are not as talented as her make millions, she admits she's had to swallow the bitterness.
"I've dedicated my life to football. When I got in all I wanted to do was have fun and play and have a good life," she says. "But even as soon as I got into the game I began to realize that my talent would not be enough. We would have to fight to be seen, to get what we deserve. It's just draining."
This reality is part of why Modise hung up her boots ahead of time to focus on coaching and development
Part II: A girl from the dust
Portia Modise was born in Soweto, the largest township in South Africa. It was one of the first places to be built after the Apartheid government instated the Group Areas Act in the 1950s, separating black and white South Africans. The name "Soweto" originally stood for "South Western Townships," but it has since been appropriated by black South Africans to mean "So Where To?," a reference to the forced removals that resulted because of the act. In advertising campaigns targeting tourists, Soweto is touted as the only place in the world to have a street with two Nobel Laureates: Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu both had houses on Vilakazi Street. In this part of the world, when you order a happy meal you don't get a McDonald's burger but the head of a sheep.
A view of Soweto. Photo by Valeria Witters/Witters Sport via USA TODAY Sports
The youngest of three children, Modise was encouraged by her oldest brother to play soccer. "I used to play with boys. They would always come to my house and we would make small goal posts using rocks on the streets or the side of the road and just play all day," she says. "I soon got better than most of them, and by the time I started playing women's soccer I was already so strong because I grew up playing with guys."
By her early teens, Modise was already a prodigy in the lower divisions; she got her first senior call up when she was just 17. Former Banyana Banyana captain Desiree Ellis recalls seeing a young Modise in action and being taken aback. "She was a 14-year-old in an under-19 interprovincial tournament and was definitely not out of her depth. People already started to take notice of her," says Ellis. "She always wanted to be involved in the match. Always wanted the ball, even when she was marked, as she always believed no matter who she faced, she was better."
Modise wasn't wrong.
Part III: The power of saying no
It's this belief in herself that has been the defining hallmark of Modise's career.
"I have seen a lot of players with talent waste it cause they don't have support from their families and discipline," she says. "I have always had this belief in myself because I come from nothing, so there was nothing to lose."
Modise says that the support of her family has been important to her, not only because she has had to deal with being a woman in football but also because of that homophobia that plagues the sport.
"When I was growing up, I knew I liked girls and I liked playing with boys and it was normal and accepted. It was only when I got out that I started to see that who I was, was a problem for some people," she says. "But because my family had raised me to be so resilient, I was ready for it and when people tried to box me in because of my sexuality I was just like, no, I don't accept that!"
The power of saying no is a recurring part of Modise's story. She asserts her autonomy with the insistence of an artist refusing to compromise. In 2003, along with compatriots Veronica Phewa, Tanya Carelse, and then 15-year-old Mpumi Nyandeni, Modise was invited to Arsenal ladies for trials. She scored two goals in a victory against a visiting Japanese team. The London club was desperate to sign her, but the deal fell through because there were disagreements about contracts. This would be the first major setback of Modise's career, and a defining one.
"It's all you want to do, play for a big team overseas, but I knew I couldn't work so hard and then shortchange myself just to get a deal. It was a matter of principle." When I ask her if she has any regrets about not signing with the club, Modise's response is quick and matter-of-fact. That word makes its way back again. No.
But saying no sometimes comes at a price. In 2005, the South African Football Association announced plans to send the Banyana Banyana team to etiquette classes and supply tighter kit to soften their image. At the time, Ria Ledwaba, who was the head of SAFA's women's committee, said, "At the moment you sometimes can't tell if they're men or women. Obviously they can't wear skirts on (the) pitch but they will be given outfits made for women, with female shirts that are shaped for breasts."
It was a cataclysmic moment for Modise, who realized that no matter how much she excelled at the highest level of the sport, her gender and sexuality were inextricably linked to her performances on the pitch.
"Here is the thing," she says, "when you don't perform well they will say it's because you're a woman, but it's not my genitals that play football. When I am on the pitch, I'm a football player and it was just unthinkable to me that I had to deal with all these sideshows instead of playing the game and representing my country."
A young South Africa fan. Photo by Mario Kneisl/GEPA via USA TODAY Sports
Modise would be the most outspoken critic of the new changes and after public pressure SAFA backtracked. But this would not be the last time that Bashin, as Modise is affectionately known, would have to go up against the federation.
In 2008, Modise announced that she would be quitting Banyana Banyana because of a rift with then coach August Makalakalane. "It's a difficult thing when you have to turn your back on you country, but it was something I had to do for my own sanity," she explains. "We didn't see eye to eye tactically, but he was also such a homophobe and I just couldn't do that to myself. This is women's soccer and here we were being told by this guy what to do and how to act. It wasn't right."
When Modise started playing in the late 1980s and 90s, women's soccer was not a thing in South Africa. Back then, it used to be called ladies soccer—a label that implied the way the tomboy edges on the women who played the game had to be smoothed out. This smoothing-out would not be limited only to how we talk about the game but also how it is organized. Modise is always careful to call her sport women's soccer. It's a matter of bringing that history into focus. She understands the weight of words.
Makalakalane would later be fired from coaching Banyana Banyana after allegations of sexual harassment, homophobia, and wanting sexual favors in exchange for game time. I ask Modise if she felt vindicated by his sacking. She pauses, purses her lips before answering. "You don't want to be right about something like that," she says. "I hate that he dropped people from the team and ruined careers. The right thing happened in the end. I just wish it had happened sooner."
These traumatic experiences are part of what led Modise to retire early, to focus on development and coaching. So other young girls wouldn't have to endure harassment to play the sport they love. "I want to create a space where young people don't have to deal with these problems, especially the young girls," she says. "Where they can have an academy in the township, play, and just be themselves in ways many people of my generation never really could be."
Part IV: Tomorrow
Modise's dream is already coming true. She, along with South African legends Lucas Radebe and Mark Fish, hosts a regular training camp where they scout for new talent. When I ask Modise, who is still very much defining her coaching style, what she is looking for in the next generation of Banyana Banyana stars, she points out that she needs people with commitment.
"People don't know how hard it was to build the Banyana Banyana name," she says. "I'm not only looking for people who can play but who can put it all on the line for the team. I think about that a lot and I think that is what I am all about in this next phase of my career."
One of the camps she hosts with Radebe and Fish is sponsored by a mobile phone company, and they hand out tablets to the best young players. One of the young players is a 13-year old girl from Soweto who says she doesn't know who Portia Modise is. The other kids try to tell her that Modise is a soccer legend, and soon they are watching YouTube videos of Modise scoring goals and nutmegging players on one of the tablets. One of the videos is of Modise's outrageous goal in London. They play it again and again in awe.
The goal is like Portia Modise herself—very efficient and business-like, refusing to be stifled into stillness. It was not the first time she'd done this in her life, and I'm sure it won't be the last. When I ask her about the goal, she repeats her mantra: "Football is a team sport. It's like an orchestra." But every orchestra needs a great soloist, I tell her. Modise just laughs and shrugs.
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