As coach of the South Sudan women’s national football team, South African Shilene Booysen is developing the game and making a difference in the world’s youngest country.
By Nick Said
“Going to South Sudan has opened my eyes to the challenges people have in life.”
South African coach Shilene Booysen has embarked on a career path of a different kind that has seen her take on the role of coach of the South Sudan women’s national football team, hoping to develop the game for girls in one of Africa’s poorest countries.
Booysen is a hugely respected figure in coaching on the continent having helped South Africa to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup as a highly-valued analyst alongside head coach Desiree Ellis.
Booysen also worked in the best women’s football domestic competition in the world in the same role with National Women’s Soccer League side Houston Dash in the United States.
It might seem strange then that she has taken on a role with minnows South Sudan, where she must in essence create a national football team from scratch in the full knowledge that there will be many tough years ahead of big losses and bitter disappointment.
But for Booysen, this is more than a job, it is a calling, and she is living her dream of passing on her football knowledge to those who need it most, rather than being just another coach on the global professional circuit.
South Sudan gained its independence in 2011, but only played its first women’s football international in 2019. They have had a handful of games since then, with Booysen leaving the comforts of her Banyana Banyana role to lead the team in February this year.
“Desiree and I had been chatting about me taking up a head coaching role, because people just saw me as an analyst,” Booysen tells FORBES AFRICA.
“I wanted to expand my horizons and challenge myself. I started putting out feelers and was alerted to the fact that South Sudan was looking for a head coach.
“At the time I thought it was not entirely what I wanted, I wanted to be closer to home, but once I saw what they were doing, it became something I really wanted to do.”
Booysen admits it has been a culture shock that took some getting used to, but she quickly adjusted to living in South Sudan.
“My first impression when I got there… I was shocked to be honest. I didn’t think South Sudan was as underdeveloped as it is. But once I started meeting the people, it was such a refreshing thing.
“I think we are spoilt, especially in South Africa, with all the luxuries we enjoy. Going to South Sudan has opened my eyes to the challenges people have in life. It is a really poor country. I think 80%-90% of people don’t have formal jobs. They sell things on the street.
“It was a culture shock for me to see what was going on there, but once I got to meet the people, I was lost … I fell in love with them.
“I still feel like that, I’m still excited and passionate about doing what I can to help as many people as I can.”
Booysen has worked at a very high level with some of the best players in Africa and, during her time in the US, some of the best in the world. So what was it like trying to pull together a team of players who had barely kicked a ball in organized sport in their lives?
“Coming from an established team like Banyana Banyana and going to a team where you basically have to teach players to pass the ball in the national team … that has been challenging
“But it gives you an opportunity to build a legacy, not for myself but for the team. Everything we do is history. Everything we touch is history. Everywhere we go is history.”
Booysen is aware that results will not come for some time, perhaps years, as she brings the players up to the required level, but says they are moving forward. She did get a rude awakening in her first match in charge against Ethiopia in April.
“We lost it 11-0, but it was not about the scoreline, it was about the fact that someone wanted to invest in women’s football.
“The South Sudan Football Association has decided that their women’s program will take on a huge role in developing football in the country.
“It is very different to what I have done before, where I have worked with high-level professionals. So I’m going the opposite way of what people might think… but this is what I was born to do.
“I love working with these girls, I love seeing the changes in them, the differences in their thinking.
“Just telling them that sleep is important (for a professional athlete), that is the kind of thing they didn’t really understand. Why nutrition is important, why you can’t eat certain things.
“These girls were shocked at what a fitness test is. It was like a normal ‘bleep test’ that is done at Under-15 level in other countries. These were senior players and they battled.
“They had no idea how to push themselves, the type of training that is required. But we are starting to see the progress. Now they are closer to where they need to be.”
Booysen says she is also learning about what makes each of her players tick and how to get the best out of them.
“We need to instill the culture that we want. If you want a winning culture, you can’t have toxic people in the team.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day and they need to understand this is a process that will take some time. They (her players) must start thinking about football in a different way.
“Every team is ranked higher than us, every team has more experience than us, every team has had time to work hard and get to where they are now. We haven’t had that luxury.”
Booysen only started playing the game at the age of 25, but would go on to represent South Africa as a goalkeeper.
“I started as a center-back, but I thought, ‘I am a netballer more than anything, so maybe I can be a goalkeeper’.
“Not long after that I was selected for the national squad, but I tore the ligaments in my knee, which was devastating. I played netball, softball, tennis and swam, I had lots of sport that I took too.
“But when I started playing football, I wanted to know more about the game. I did loads of coaching courses, went to many seminars and was passionate about learning the game.”
She had a 25-year career at a mechanical engineering company before becoming a full-time coach, which she says is a fulfillment of her ambition to change people’s lives for the better, in this instance through sport.
“I am the youngest of eight kids. I was also a huge academic, which was more important to me. I went into mechanical engineering, but to be honest, the passion was never that big.
“I started out wanting to be a teacher, then a doctor and ended up being in engineering. But my heart just wants to be with people.”