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

“It’s wild,” she told the Guardian. “I tell people that I work full time and I play football part time. Many of us have to take unpaid leave to play matches. But on game day, you would never say we’re not full-time players.

Like many of her international teammates, Swart has day jobs – hers being a sports coach and an administrative assistant at a school – and trains mostly in the evenings, juggling between match day commitments and real life. Sometimes it can get too much to handle and 18 months ago she considered quitting the game altogether. and continue my work. Then I thought if I could just find the love for the game again, find my passion and have fun with it, who knows what might happen?

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

Now it’s back to earth.

Kaylin Swart: From the World Cup to daily work and long bus journeys on match days |  South Africa women’s national football team
Kaylin Swart shoots over the bar during South Africa’s World Cup Round of 16 match against the Netherlands. Photography: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

For Swart and the rest of the South African squad, while the World Cup fee will be a welcome boost to their bank balances, they cannot secure sustainable sources of income from their clubs or of their football federation. Their national championship is not yet professionalised despite calls from some of South Africa’s most important clubs to do so. The country’s sports minister, Zizi Kodwa, has pleaded directly with the South African Football Federation (SAFA) and South African companies to fast-track their plans to establish a women’s professional league. Speaking at the launch of the women’s professional cricket league two weeks ago, Kodwa praised Cricket South Africa for being the first federation to issue contracts to national female players and said: “Other federations could learn a or two things from you.”

He also took the opportunity to castigate SAFA for what he called a “failure of leadership” before the World Cup, which led to the Banyana Banyana boycotting their only preparation session, against Botswana. The full 23-member World Cup squad refused to play on what they said was unsanitary ground at Tsakane Stadium, east of Johannesburg, a stadium that does not host the Premier League men’s football. At SAFA’s insistence, coach Desiree Ellis was forced to manage a hastily assembled side, which lost 5-0. “We don’t want to see any team go through what Banyana Banyana went through,” Kodwa said. In response, a SAFA spokesperson said: “We will meet the minister after the COSAFA qualifiers for the 2023 CAF Women’s Champions League next week. »

Swart maintains the team’s position that day. “We weren’t prepared to compromise our health and safety and we respected each other enough to know we expected better than that. This was largely due to us not feeling respected. The terrain was not the best. The fact that they thought it was okay for us to play on that was something we weren’t happy about. It was just about being respected as athletes.

When asked if the team feared for his future as a player, Swart replied that he didn’t think that far ahead at the time, but hoped his actions would set the tone for future class action. “A lot of us felt like what we were doing was huge, but I don’t think any of us really thought about the consequences,” she said. “What was beautiful was that we were united and we knew what we were fighting for. We fought at 23. We knew that if we stayed together no one could break us and it reflected on the pitch. Our bond is the strongest it has ever been. We were so tired of being trampled on and not being heard.

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But today, a month after his return from the World Cup, that’s exactly what could happen. Swart’s insistence that a professional league is ‘a need, not a want’, has not gained traction despite South Africa making progress in their bid for the league. organization of the 2027 World Cup. Instead, the money keeps flowing the other way.

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

“We need to elevate our sport so that we can bridge the gap between us and the players playing overseas. Professionalizing our league will allow us to focus better,” Swart said. “None of us want to work. I would love to play football all day. And nobody wants to ride on the same day as a big game, but that’s also nice. When things are going well, we will look back on all the struggles and know we made it.