She’s a living legend in African football, the only player to score more than 100 international goals in the beautiful game – and now she’s about to go global and join the ranks of some of the biggest names the sport has ever seen. Portia Modise (35) was recently named an ambassador for the upcoming Fifa Women’s World Cup.
She joins the ranks of other Fifa ambassadors, including big names like Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham, and the former forward and midfielder is brimming with excitement. “It feels great that I’ve been recognised by the big house of football that is Fifa, the mother of football,” she says, chatting to us from her home in White City Jabavu in Soweto.
She can’t wait to watch Banyana Banyana in action against the world’s finest in France come June. But with a flicker of sadness she wistfully adds, “I wish I was still playing for the national team.” Portia retired in 2015 when she was still at the top of her game.
“Football really changed my life,” she said at the time. “But age is catching up and I don’t want to be that player people look at and think, ‘She can’t do it anymore’.” She may no longer be playing but she remains one of most recognisable faces in the women’s game.
Portia is one of the strongest supporters of the sport and will use her new position to promote women’s soccer, she says. “I’m very vocal about issues surrounding women’s football and this opportunity will give me a platform to talk more about that and change people’s perspectives. I want everyone to start respecting women’s football more.”
Portia’s main focus as a Fifa ambassador is to see the sport treated with the respect the men’s game receives. “The women’s side is not paid the same but we’re also playing for the national team,” she says. The former player has for many years called for women to be paid better.
A report revealed the startling difference in the two games: Banyana players reportedly receive R5 000 per match regardless of whether they win, lose or draw, while Bafana Bafana get R60 000 for a victory and R30 000 for a draw. “If it wasn’t for us being vocal all these years, nobody would know we aren’t being treated fairly,” Portia told the Sowetan.
“Now we’re seeing sponsors and people contributing to Banyana and that is a good thing. Even at Fifa, I will be telling people about the struggles our women go through in our football. “[My generation] wasn’t able to qualify for the World Cup, but for these girls, what is the excuse?
What will the reason be for not paying them as well as the men?” She is proud of Banyana for breaking into the World Cup for the first time and Desiree Ellis, her former teammate and now Banyana Banyana coach, did well to get the team there.
But, she adds, the accomplishment “is something that has been built over generations of classes that came into the national team. It was about time the ladies qualified.” She’s blunt when assessing her former side’s chance of progressing beyond the group stages of the competition.
“I like to be realistic and to be honest, I’ve played overseas and I know the standards of players from overseas. When I look at the standards here at home they aren’t up to the ones that need to be maintained when competing in a tournament like the World Cup.”
A lack of professional structures in SA is holding the team back from competing on an even keel with the world’s best she says. “We only get proper development or go to camps when we have to compete, but we need to do that every day to maintain a certain standard. So that might cost them a shot at winning.”
Portia was seven years old when she fell in love with soccer on the streets of White City. Her talents saw her being recruited by the Soweto Rangers’ under-10 team, and later the Jomo Cosmos women’s team and then Soweto Ladies.
The versatile Portia’s talent meant she could play as a midfielder or a striker. She was called up to Banyana in 2000 and made her debut in the African Women’s Championships (now the Africa Women Cup of Nations). She would eventually have 124 caps by the time she retired and 101 goals to her name.
Her greatest goal was the one she scored against Sweden at the 2012 Olympics. Although Banyana ended up losing 4-1, finding the back of that net is a moment Portia will cherish forever. “I’ll never forget that goal. I saw early in the game the goalkeeper’s weakness was that she was always coming off her line, so I took a shot and it came off.
I was really proud,” she says. The most high-profile club she played for was Denmark’s Fortuna Hjørring, where she spent two years before returning home in 2009 to play for Palace Super Falcons. In October 2014 she made history as her brace against Algeria at the African Women’s Championship saw her become the first African player to breach the 100-goal barrier in international soccer.
When Safa president Danny Jordaan announced Portia’s retirement he called it a sad day for South African soccer. “She was one player who knew how to get the ball in the net.” N OW it’s time to give back to football, Portia says.
“I want to be involved in the development of young upcoming stars because there is nothing as pleasing as planting something and watching it grow – that’s the best gift.” She is in talks with Safa “to create platforms for legends to come back and groom the young current players”.
But she’s not waiting for the association to get things moving and is already hard at work launching her own soccer school, Portia Modise’s Academy. “I’m busy with my academy and I’m in talks with the municipality to let us use the newly built Jabavu Stadium for training,” she says.
The academy, which is presently funded by Portia, will hopefully soon be in a position to start holding trials for young players. She is optimistic she can bring change to the sport where she made her mark. “I’m happy I can give youngsters from around my ‘hood an opportunity to do something they love,” she says. It changed her life – now she’s hoping it can do the same for them.