Football family building the rainbow nation
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IT'S BEEN a dribble around some hurdles, but a pair of coaches, who also happen to be husband and wife, have shown with their football team that a true “rainbow nation” is attainable with genuine commitment to the project.
Lewis and Thully Donnelly’s Shooting Stars team, comprising players from the country’s four predominant race groups scored a notable success by winning the women’s section in the KwaZulu-Natal leg of the Engen Knockout Challenge football tournament.
They lifted the trophy after Sunday’s final, and are presently readying themselves for the national stage in this competition, which will begin in Pretoria, later this week.
Shooting Stars’ squad of players have been drawn from various Durban suburbs and they even have a player who is happy to trek from Pietermaritzburg for all the Wentworth-based team's commitments.
The Donnellys have been in football for many years.
With all the certifications Lewis has achieved in the past, he has been more inclined to coaching and administration, while Thully has played in the Sasol Women’s league previously.
But with numerous coaching badges to her name, some of which were achieved on the continent and others endorsed by European bodies, Thully is a more than a capable assistant to her husband.
Shooting Stars came to life in 2010 and their structures included male age-group teams, a football academy and a team that featured in the Sasol women’s league, the highest in the country.
With her parents so deeply involved with football, it was only natural for Ronnel, 17, to develop an affinity for the game.
At age six, she started to play.
Her favourite position was as a striker and she has been finding the back of the net with ease since then.
That innate ability has earned her much recognition over the years, including selection for the SA Under 17 teams in previous seasons.
Her most recent achievement came last week when she turned out for the SA Under 20 team that travelled to Mozambique for a U20 Women’s World Cup qualification match.
But when she first started playing there were no appropriate structures to support and shape Ronnel’s enthusiasm.
Her parents were forced to enrol Ronnel with boy’s teams. This arrangement became a challenge, especially when her teams played in tournaments around the country.
Lewis said at times they had to ask the organisers of competitions for permission to play Ronnel in boys events.
Ronnel also had game time with Thully in some Sasol League matches.
“It was painful as a parent because you couldn't find a team for her, it was like finding a needle in a haystack.
“That was my passion for pushing to get a fully fledged football structure for girls,” he said.
Lewis said he would play Ronnel in their senior women’s team when she was “still a baby”, at ages nine and 10 she was playing with her mother and competing with adults at a high level.
“It was a sore thing for the child.
“She used to say, ’dad, I would like to play with my own age group’,” he said.
Ronnel began to flourish when she started to play for Kloof High School’s girl’s Under 14 and 15 teams.
“Since then she has been a superstar,” he said.
Lewis and Thully were always strong advocates for including minority race groups in development structures and they achieved this when their girl structures were established about four seasons ago.
“For me it’s to build a legacy, and to get the Indian, white and coloured girls to play catch up with black players, and football has been that unifying factor,” he said.
Lewis was satisfied that a family atmosphere exists in their ranks.
“Race is not a factor and everything is based on family dynamics. When we get together, the girls don't want to leave. We are united, we share and care about each other,” he said.
Lewis accepts that the team has its flaws as there were some excellent players and the others were learners, but through patience and sticking to their exercise and training programmes, the players had grown in ability.
“They are like sponges. They take in everything and are always willing to learn. On the field, they give it their all.
“If they were a team full of stars we might not have achieved as we have.
“We are not the best, but with some technical and tactical training, and good organisation, we have achieved great results through our robust and exciting style of play,” he said.
When Covid-19 surfaced in 2020, Lewis and Thully decided to sell their Sasol League franchise.
They then went about assembling their present squad to play in the lower Safa eThekwini Regional League, with four women who were older than 20, while the rest were mostly school-going children.
Ronnel broke into the SA Under 17 team after she was spotted in action for Shooting Stars in the Sasol League.
Therefore, some sceptics believed that Ronnel would earn no further national call-ups because she was playing at a lower level.
She helped Shooting Stars win the eThekwini League in convincing fashion, and of the more than 150 goals the team scored in the past season, she scored 103.
Shooting Stars’ league success has since won them a place in the promotion play-offs for the Sasol League, which is scheduled for this month and Ronnel has already featured in the SA Under 20 team.
“Some were saying that because Ronnel was not with heavyweight teams like Sundowns and Durban Ladies, she wouldn't make SA selection.
“I was prepared to take the risk because I believe in grassroots development.
“If your national selectors are not able to notice players in the lower leagues, then we have failed as a nation.
“:That's why this stepping stone is so big for me because I allowed my daughter to build this team, which is reflective of the rainbow nation. It is almost like it is her project,” said Lewis.
Shooting Stars went to the three-day Engen tournament as heavy favourites but drew their opening match.
Lewis explained that they missed Ronnel in that match as she was still returning from national duty with the SA Under 20s.
Once she got there on the second day of the competition, Shooting Stars found goalscoring to be easier.
In the semi-final they needed penalties to get past their opponents. Their goalkeeper Natanya le Roux saved a kick during the shootout to confirm their progress to the final, which they won 5-0.
Apart from the winners cheque, their players also collected the bulk of the special awards, including Ronnel’s “golden boot” recognition.
Lewis will lead the team in the next level of the Engen competition and the Sasol play-offs.
Thereafter, Thully will move into the head coach’s position. That’s because Lewis was recently elected president of the Safa Durban South Football Association, a position he will assume in the new season.
“Thully is a perfect replacement, I believe she has the ability to coach Banyana Banyana someday,” Lewis predicted.
Football stars aiming to shoot to new heights
When Thully Donnelly and her husband Lewis started their football club, apart from developing the game at a grassroots level, they also wanted to keep children off the streets.
The couple met when Thully was living in Lamontville (south of Durban) and playing for a local team.
She was an outstanding midfielder.
“Lewis was coaching another team when he noticed me at a tournament,” she said.
Thully said she landed the player of the tournament award in that competition.
Afterwards, Lewis approached her about joining his team but she suggested he first speak to her parents.
He did and she eventually joined his team.
“Lewis saw me as more than a player in his team, he saw me as his wifey,” Thully remembered.
She warned about the challenges of being married to a football coach.
“As a family we eat, sleep and live for football. Everything is soccer, soccer soccer… We even discuss tactics around the dinner table,” she said.
Thully said there was “little or no family time”, but their love for each other and the game has kept them married for 21 years.
In recent times she hung up her football boots and became the assistant coach, but not before playing three seasons alongside her daughter Ronnel, in the same team.
“Ronnel would shout ’mummy, mummy, mummy!’ whenever I had the ball. That was very awkward, some people couldn’t believe it.”
Thully said as a player or as the coach, she found it difficult to keep calm when someone kicked or injured her daughter on the field of play.
“When it's your daughter, you get wound up. It is a very unique situation but I have to control my emotions,” she said.
Thully said she was looking forward to taking over the coaching duties from her husband.
“I have many qualifications. I have learnt from some of the best in the game,” she said.
About the team they have assembled, Thully said: “I love the bond we share, if we continue to work together we will achieve great things
“We want to groom players who will play at the highest levels overseas,” she said.
Ronnel Donnelly has made goalscoring look easy and it has reaped plenty of rewards over the years, best of all was her recent call-up for the SA Under 20 team that beat Mozambique 1-0 in a World Cup Qualifying match.
Donnelly said remaining calm and confident when in front of goals was essential for her, and she prefers “to place the ball”, instead of blasting it into the net all the time.
She is presently in her matric year at Kloof High School and with the help of her father Lewis, she is able to strike a balance between her football commitments and school work.
When her football commitments keep her from school, she tries to catch-up on weekends or her teachers arrange teaching sessions, which are done via Zoom.
After featuring in the game against Mozambique, Donnelly said the Under 20 coaches appreciated her contribution.
“It was one of my best experiences,” she said.
Donnelly appreciates the Shooting Stars set-up: “I think we are the only truly mixed team in KZN and we learn so much about the different cultures and religions,” she said.
Donnelly is happy with how the women’s game has progressed internationally because it was “all about the men before”.
An opportunity to play overseas, preferably for Manchester City in England, is what her heart is set on.
That dream might just be realised as she has already been accepted to study sports science at Bournemouth University and she’s waiting on responses from a few other universities.
“I am hoping to land a trial with the City’s junior ladies team,” she said.
Natanya le Roux
What Natanya le Roux enjoys the most about playing for Shooting Stars is the diversity that has been achieved at the club.
“I played in a lot of teams and there was never that (diversity) before. This is the first time for me and it's the best thing ever.
It has even brought our supporters together, different races uniting on the touchline with the same interest. It is an amazing thing to see,” marvelled le Roux.
She’s so chuffed about playing for Shooting Stars that this matric pupil at Voortrekker High School doesn’t mind travelling from Pietermaritzburg to be a part of the mix.
“I am very committed to the team. I was playing for a Pietermaritzburg team affiliated to a Durban league when Shooting Stars approached me.
“They were the champions, how could I say no to them? It has been the best move ever,” said Le Roux, who toured Europe previously with a schools team.
Winning the Engen tournament last week has been one of her best football moments thus far, and she had an important hand in their overall success.
“I saved the deciding penalty in the semi-finals where penalty kicks became necessary to decide the outcome of the game.
“It was a dramatic and amazing moment. My team appreciated it so much afterwards,” she said.
Le Roux is excited with how the women’s game has evolved both locally and globally, and what the future holds.
“At school games there are more supporters and even Banyana Banyana players are more recognisable these days.
She also appreciates how US goalkeeper Hope Solo has championed for better pay and recognition for women footballers.
Although she has no aspirations of playing overseas in the future, she hopes to play at a high level locally.
Pursuing a BCom Management qualification once she completes matric is what the 1.88m tall goalkeeper hopes to do.
Winning the Engen tournament was a fulfilling experience for Nikita Sing.
“It was great, especially since it was the first time that ladies got the opportunity to play in this competition,” she said.
Sing hoped there could be more opportunities for women footballers in South Africa.
“There aren't many clubs catering for ladies. Not enough sponsorship is directed towards the women’s game. Sponsors prefer to back men.
“We can change that. The ladies need to show what they can do on the field,” she said.
Sing said playing in defence was not her preferred position, but she gets placed there because her coaches realise how good she is at winning the ball, opponents struggle to get past her and she has lots of pace.
“I am a physical and robust player who uses the slide tackle with good effect,” she said.
Sing, who has represented KZN in the past, is a huge admirer of Virgil van Dijk, the Liverpool defender, even though she is a Manchester United supporter.
About her team, Sing said they “fight for each other” on the field and achieve together.
“We trust and respect each other. Race is never an issue with us,” said the Sydenham based player, who is presently studying business relations.
She appreciates the efforts of coaches Lewis and Thully Donnelly.
“They are good coaches, who do everything for us with fairness.”
Her dynamism in midfield is what sets Aphiwe Shamase apart. The Pinetown Girls High matric pupil is best known for her ’never say die’ attitude on the field.
Shamase said she tried to model her game around the play of Bayern Munich defensive midfielder Joshua Kimmich.
Therefore, she puts in the extra effort to improve her fitness, just as her coaches have directed her.
Shamase counts playing for Shooting Stars a pleasure because of the “sisterhood” that has been achieved at the club.
“We don’t look at the skin colour of players or where they come from, we just treat each other equally and fairly, having diversity is a good thing,” she said.
Shamase agreed that if society worked in unity as a true rainbow nation should, much could be achieved.
Similarly, it was the unity within their team that enabled them to win the Engen competition.
Landing football honours is nothing new for Shamase who has represented KZN previously.
She would dearly love to play in one of the big international leagues someday.
“The opportunities are there. It is something on my wish list, hopefully it could be with Chelsea or Barcelona,” Shamase said.