Sheryl Botes remembers the day Linda Motlhalo walked into the High-Performance Centre [HPC] for a trial 30 minutes late.
Unfortunately, the guileless yet so determined 12-year-old girl from Brandvlei, Randfontein, got lost on her way to Koedoespoort, Pretoria.
Nonetheless, Botes – the head coach of the Safa Girls Soccer Academy based at the HPC – masterly followed her gut feel. She just had to run the rule over the latecomer kid even though she was midway through the trials.
“She came via Church Street and got lost. She got to the trials when we were really busy half an hour late,” Botes tells FARPost from Egypt, where she’s attending a Caf workshop.
The moment diminutive Linda touched the ball, Botes just knew she was right to follow that extrasensory perception. The girl had it all! “Within two minutes, I selected Linda,” Botes adds.
The little girl from Brandvlei Primary School had done enough to secure her place at the TuksSport High School.
Upon being pulled out, she broke into tears wanting to play more. “When I took her off, she started crying. She said, ‘but I didn’t get a chance to play’. I said, ‘but you’ve done enough’,” Botes says.
Linda had been accustomed to being left out on the sidelines, yearning to kick the ball around with the boys for the longest time.
When her dad Joseph Motlhalo was coaching a Randfontein amateur side Mighty Bucs, he would often take her.
But she wasn’t the type of guest that sat it out and merely watched the boys go through their paces. With her tiny feet, she would juggle a ball behind the goalposts, and with each day – the poise and technique got finer and better.
Without the little girl verbally asking, her deft touches demanded that her dad – with a whistle in his mouth – lost focus on his boys momentarily to gaze at his daughter’s lively, almost carefree style.
By his admission, her countenance was that of a happy child when she had the ball at her feet. “She was generally a quiet kid, but when she had the ball at her feet, she was full of joy,” Motlhalo tells FARPost.
Happy-go-lucky, seven-year-old Linda caressed the soccer ball, conscientiously taming an object that would have efficiently run wild on the feet of a boy way older than her. And she seemed to get better at it by the day. Joseph Motlhalo had just stumbled on Randfontein’s best-kept secret.
“My father started coaching a team called Mighty Bucs when I was about seven, so I would go with him to the matches and training, and he would give me a ball to juggle around. That’s how it all started,” says Linda, a niece of former Kaizer Chiefs goalkeeper Joseph ‘Banks’ Setlhodi.
While the ordinary girl in Brandvlei, on the West Rand, would go and play skipping rope, there was no changing little Linda’s mind.
Of course, at some point, she did set a record for the 800m race in athletics at Brandvlei Primary School, which was only broken two years ago – exactly 11 years after she left the school. But when she was asked to toss between football and athletics, it was such an easy choice.
“I had to choose because my mother felt the demands were too much for me. I picked soccer because while I was good with athletics, I wouldn’t wake up at 3 am to go run, but I would do that with football,” she tells FARPost.
However, the only challenge with football was that there was no team for girls. She would be restricted to juggling the ball outside the pitch and occasionally playing with the boys.
After four years of these regular visits – football was something she had fallen in love with. Dad had seen how jolly she was with the ball at her feet. Something had to give!
“I approached the owner of Mighty Bucs and asked him to start a girls’ team,” Motlhalo explains. It didn’t matter to Linda that it would mean playing with older girls when the owner eventually agreed. All she wanted was the ball at her feet.
It would be a year of playing with the older girls and excelling at it. An appearance in the Gauteng provincial Under 15 team had seen her meet with Thembi Kgatlana, who was already at the HPC.
“I remember Thembi called to inform me about the trials at HPC Tuks, so she told me to come at a certain time,” says the former Basetsana skipper.
She thought that the only way to make amends for her unacceptable late coming was to impress Botes. Botes was overwhelmed with wonder with her first touch – cheerier with the ball at her feet. Right in front of her was potentially the next best thing in the women’s game. An absolute baller in the making!
“I remember that day vividly like it was yesterday. I just needed to make an impression, and when I got the ball, Coach Sheryl was amazed. I didn’t understand why she removed me afterwards, but after some time, I got to understand,” she says. That’s how she announced her arrival at the HPC.
At her dazzling best, there was no doubting that her technical skills, creativity and dribbling ability could quickly catapult her to the zenith of women’s football in the country.
Banyana Banyana goalkeeper Mapaseka Karabo Mpuru, who schooled with her at the TuksSport High School, recalls how she would effortlessly humiliate boys with neat touches throughout her six years. Skilful Linda could do everything and anything with the ball except make it talk.
“She always went the extra mile. When we had spare time, she’d want to do ball work,” Mpuru tells FARPost.
Perhaps that is why it also took revered Dutch coach Vera Pauw a few minutes to be won over. It was exactly four years after she was admitted to the HPC when Pauw first saw her.
“The first time I saw her playing was at the High Performance Centre in Pretoria. After two minutes I asked who she was. I remember I was impressed how she made complicated football situations simple and helped her teammates perform. Not long after, I brought her into the training camp of Banyana Banyana,” Pauw, who spent two years at the helm of Banyana, tells FARPost from her Netherlands base.
The Republic of Ireland national team coach is convinced Linda’s star was already in the ascendant at Rio 2016. “She was already a world-class player. It is funny that people only start to see that when the body develops as back then in 2016, she was already the natural ‘boss’ in midfield,” the 58-year-old coach says.
When Pauw was appointed Houston Dash coach in the US in 2018, she snapped up ‘Randfontein’s Ronaldinho’ from JVW alongside Kgatlana and Janine van Wyk. She needed a vital cog to bring vision and creativity to her midfield.
“We had too much of the same: strong, fast and dynamic. Kristie Mewiss was the only player that was different in that sense. In a team, you need both that compliments each other. We needed support for Kristie, and no one was better in that job than Linda,” Pauw explains.
The breakthrough came straight after high school. “I remember my last year in High School late when I was writing my final exams, Coach Vera was like, ‘Linda I’m going to coach Huston Dash next year and I want you to be part of my team’. I took long to respond to her because I was busy with my exams and when I was done with my exams I called her and I was like, ‘coach I am ready’. That’s how I went to the USA,” recalls the Banyana number 10.
She admits the first three months in Houston – the most populous city in the US state of Texas – weren’t the easiest. But eventually, Pauw says she mastered the art of staying on her feet under pressure.
Exactly a year later, Chinese Women’s Super League side Beijing BG Phoenix came knocking with an irresistible offer. “When I left to go to China the offer was so good. I enjoyed myself in China, I even enjoyed the food, I was eating things I know – your rice, eggs – the foodstuffs we know in South Africa. It made things easy that I was with Thembi there,” she explains, adding that in China she played in a deeper central midfield role.
When the deadly pandemic Covid-19 shut the door on all football activities, the pacey playmaker had to pack her bags. By a stroke of fortune, her sparkling profile had caught the eyes of Swedish side Djurgardens IF.
“I have been enjoying myself even though it is cold, I am enjoying my football here,” says Linda, who had already represented South Africa in all national-team age groups by the time she got to Grade 12.
Like a fish to water, her Sweden mission took off pretty well. She made her debut on 22 February 2020, scoring twice after coming on as a substitute in a Stockholm derby victory over AIK. Perhaps it was that dance she did in the dressing room days after signing for the club based in the Johanneshov district of Stockholm.
“God works in miraculous ways because when I got here the first day my teammates were so welcoming to a point that I even danced on my first day. I know I’m a very shy person and I was surprised. They were so welcoming so I adjusted well. I had always been with people; it was time for me to grow,” says the 23-year-old.
At the end of his maiden season in Sweden, she was named Newcomer of the Season after notching four goals in 21 appearances. With 50 Banyana caps done and dusted – including a historic World Cup appearance – at 23, the sky is not even a limit for Banyana’s number 10.
Mpuru speaks prophetically that she will one day turn out for French giants PSG. “She’s going to be the best in South Africa and she will play for the bigger teams like PSG in France. She’s just started the journey. She will go very far in football,” says the Banyana shot-stopper.
Judging by her talent, her attitude and the progress she has made thus far – the little girl with magic at her feet has all the makings to become the undisputed queen of the modern era!