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The Girls Have Grown Up, But Has Their Game?

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Fran Hilton-Smith developed a love for football in the dusty alleys of her neighborhood, where as a child, she played with the boys, her only friends at the time.

“In the neighborhood I grew up in, there were more boys than girls, so all the boys were playing football. In the beginning, I had to be the goalkeeper because nobody wanted to be the goalkeeper and then finally I got to become a really good left-footed left wing,” says Hilton-Smith.

She played for South Africa’s national team but because of the political turmoil in the country at the time, she wasn’t able to play anywhere. Soon after that, and not venturing far from the sport she so loved, she became the national women’s team’s coach in 2000. Today, Hilton-Smith is the technical director of men’s and women’s football in the South African Football Association (SAFA).

When she first started, professional women’s football was practically non-existent.

“In the first team I ran, I worked out of the boot of my car, I had to buy the kit myself and buy the soccer balls myself.” She noticed that the racial integration between female football players happened much quicker than that of the men; this was because the government and football officials didn’t pay much attention to the women’s league.

Her presence in women’s football has changed the game, although there is much that needs to be done. She has not stopped lobbying for women in football.

Not only passionate about South African football, Hilton-Smith is also a crusader for women’s empowerment. She has worked tirelessly to bring acknowledgement to young women interested in and passionate about the sport. To encourage young girls in South Africa to take to football, she founded South Africa’s High Performance Centre for Girls, hosted by the University of Pretoria, focusing on the development of girls through sport and incorporating aspects of leadership.

“I realized our women are much more skilful than most of the women in the world, hence I thought if I put a lot of effort into women’s football in South Africa, with our skilful players, we will be able to make a mark on world football,” she says.

‘Doing It For Love’

Hilton-Smith became a role model for many of the youngsters in the women’s league, in particular Portia Modise, the South African who plays for the country’s national team Banyana Banyana.

“I grew up in front of Fran, I saw her struggle. It’s not easy. I don’t want to be in her shoes. We need people like Fran to stay longer in this game,” says Modise.

She started playing from the age of six, in White City Soweto, where she grew up. Her first serious entry point into the game was when she joined Cosmos Ladies. From there, she moved around to other local women’s teams. When she was a teenager, Hilton-Smith had spotted her at a game and recruited her to Banyana Banyana’s under-19 division.

From there, Modise moved her way up and joined the first team. She was signed to play overseas in a professional league despite Banyana Banyana never playing at any international leagues.

Although according to Hilton-Smith, football is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country, it does not do justice to the women’s league.

“Women’s football was struggling, it’s still struggling. There is a long way to go, we have just one league, the Sasol league and that’s struggling,” says Hilton-Smith.

“A lot of women I started playing with are not playing anymore, there was nothing to invest, and women’s football doesn’t pay. You needed to find a job to look after your family,” says Modise.

Female players like Modise, who are their families’ sole bread winners, and have been playing for years, don’t even own homes or vehicles. Only female players who play for the national team get paid a salary of R400 ($34) a day when on duty. A played game or bonus game earns the women a once-off R5,000 ($432). After the tournament, there are no funds coming in.

Modise stays because of her love for the game.

“It does not pay my bills, I am doing it out of love, I do manage but it’s difficult.”

She admits that she believes her club is much better than the national men’s league, however, much of this may be true. Funds in the men’s league outweigh that of what the women’s league has to work with.

“The history of football is that sponsors always came in to sponsor men’s football and it has just become a massive sport that attracts a lot of sponsorship. There is a future but I don’t think in my life time or Portia’s, we will ever see women earn the same as men,” says Hilton-Smith.

“Even when I used to play for Denmark, we got the same attention as the men got, but the salaries were not the same,” says Modise.

According to both women, sponsors are the biggest problem in funding the women’s league.

“It is a marketing problem as far as I am concerned. All the companies that make women’s products should be sourced to come and sponsor. Not just for women’s football, but for women’s sports.”

“As far as work options, women will never earn the same as men. Not even in my situation, I think that’s a women’s loss in life, you going to be earning less no matter how qualified you are or how competent and football is no different. Having a sponsorship where players get a good salary every month is massive,” says Hilton-Smith.

Despite all the challenges in the football industry for women, the ladies continue to fight for a more sustainable women’s league.

“My dream is to see women’s football have a proper professional league, I believe we have a lot of talent but there is no platform,” says Modise.

In the interest of women’s football, let’s hope she reaches her goal.

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