ROAD TO RIO | Samford's Seoposenwe navigating future of women's soccer in South Africa
Samford University women’s soccer player Jermaine Seoposenwe’s Olympic reality hit home last week when she saw the 2016 Rio Games’ draw announced Thursday morning via soccer federation FIFA’s website.
Aug. 3: South Africa v. Sweden, 1 p.m. Olympic Stadium, Rio de Janeiro.
The opening competition of the 2016 Olympic Games. (The Olympics officially start Aug. 5.)
In the famed Maracanã stadium.
“It’s really sinking in,” said Seoposenwe, a midfielder for 54th-ranked South Africa and a junior forward for Samford, two-time Southern Conference champions.
South Africa will play in a group with No. 12-ranked China, No. 8 Brazil and No. 6 Sweden.
“We play some good teams,” she said. “Brazil and Sweden are in the top 10 in the world. It’s going to be a great challenge for the team but I think we’re up for it. The team is excited about qualifying for the Games.”
Seoposenwe had something to do with that. In October, Seoposenwe, who holds Samford’s record for season assists, was at the receiving end of what she calls a beautiful pass from a teammate to score the goal that qualified South Africa for the Olympics.
The team nicknamed the Banyana Banyana (The Girls), defeated Equatorial Guinea, 1-0 on Oct. 18.
It was just the second time South Africa had qualified for the Games. This will be the first trip to the Olympics for Seoposenwe, who didn’t play due to injury when her team qualified in 2012. South Africa went winless in three preliminary games, but raised eyebrows by tying eventual finalist Japan, which wound up as silver medalists behind the U.S.
Don’t expect them to contend for a medal. Getting to the elimination round – where the top two teams in each group, plus the best two of three third-place finishers – would be an accomplishment.
Making the Olympic field a second-straight time was huge for the Banyana Banyana, said Seoposenwe. In a nation where men’s soccer is big, it showed the women weren’t flashes-in-the-pan. South Africa has no pro or semipro women’s soccer.
Since their rookie Olympics in 2012, women’s soccer has “slowly progressed,” she said. The team is gradually gaining recognition in her country.
“When I was little, I never watched my national team,” she said. “I never knew they existed.”
It needed this Olympic bump.
“We just really wanted to do this, not for just us but for (women’s) soccer in our country,” Seoposenwe said. “Just trying to grow the game. We know we shoulder the burden when it comes to that. A lot of people look at us. If we don’t do well, it kind of sheds a bad light on women’s soccer in our country. So qualifying and having it be closer to the Olympics now, we know that there’s more pressure. But if we stick together as a team I feel like we can do really well.”
Their home games are broadcast on TV now. The team retained sponsor Sasol, a Johannesburg energy and chemical company. The federation has invested more money in the program. The federation hired an international coach, the Netherlands’ Vera Pauw.
“She definitely has changed the team for the better,” Seoposenwe said.
Unlike the U.S. women, who have become such a cultural force in America that they are suing their own federation over equal pay, South Africa’s team is just getting started. It played its first game in 1993, soon after the U.S. won its first World Cup in 1991.
How did a Cape Town soccer player – probably the best junior woman player in South Africa, says Sanford coach Todd Yelton — end up at a university in Alabama? Brotherly love.
Yelton’s brother, Matt, was scouting Seoposenwe’s national team teammates. Matt, then coach for NCAA Division II Lee University, suggested Seoposenwe would be better suited for a DI program. He turned out to be right.
Seoposenwe set Samford’s school single-season record for assists (13) in 2014, and despite doing double duty with her national team, tied with teammate Taylor Borman last season with 11, good for top 10 in the nation.
“She’s played at such a high level against players around the world,” Yelton said. “She tends to make others around her better…Her confidence rubs off on other players.”
Yelton said she can be stubborn. Her spirited laugh and quick wit belie a competitiveness forged when she played only with boys because she didn’t think girls played tough enough. Then she met the national team.
At Samford, the speedy, 5-foot-6 Seoposenwe is no prima donna. Her assists go beyond stats.
“When you get a player of her quality, they tend to be a bit selfish or maybe difficult,” Yelton said. “That’s 100 percent not the case with her. She’s a great teammate. She always wants to bring the other players into the play. She’s everything we would want in a player.”
Seoposenwe said it took time to adjust to Birmingham. Who can blame her? This was South Africa vs. the Deep South.
In Birmingham, she said, people don’t blare their horns, even when it’s deserved.
“If people are doing something silly…why not honk your horn?” she said.
Seoposenwe likes her life in the U.S., but misses the beach and her home country’s food. While she has developed a fondness for mac-n-cheese, some southern foods mystify her.
“My friends were eating okra once,” she said. “I said, `What is that? Why would you eat that?’”
Seoposenwe said she eats a lot of grilled chicken and salad. Her teammates think it’s because she likes to eat healthy, but that’s only part of it.
“I just stick to what I know,” she said.
Samford coaches were flexible in letting Seoposenwe miss games to help her home country qualify. The hardest stretch was last fall, when she traveled from Birmingham to Johannesburg (8,557 miles, one way) for the first leg of the qualification series with Equatorial Guinea, then back just days later to limit missed classes. Less than two weeks later, she flew again to meet her teammates in Johannesburg, then to Equatorial Guinea, to play the clincher.
Despite that, Seoposenwe managed to help Samford win its second conference crown and keep up with her schoolwork.
A first-generation college student, Seoposenwe is committed to her education. After graduation, she’d like to give pro soccer a try, either in the U.S. or Europe, and someday land an international marketing job with Nike or Adidas.
Right now, she wants to be a soccer player – and, hopefully, an inspiration to girls back in Cape Town, where she hopes to retire someday.
“Soccer can take you far,” she said she would tell them. “I never knew soccer was going to take me out of Cape Town.”
U.S. soccer boycott would be ‘terrible’
Seoposenwe said if the U.S. women’s team boycotts the Olympics, a move the Americans are considering in the wake of suing the U.S. federation for wage discrimination.
“It would be terrible for them not to be there,” she said. “Playing against them would be amazing.”
The U.S. team is suing over issues such as equal (or greater) pay then the less-accomplished men’s team, which brings in less revenue than the women. The men’s U23 team failed to qualify for the Olympics for the second-straight time.
The women are ranked No. 1 in the world and are pursuing their fourth-straight Olympic title. That goes with three World Cup championships, including the most recent in 2015. Besides pay, they have clashed with the federation over other issues such as substandard playing fields and travel accommodations.
Dake comes up short in wrestling trials
Four-time NCAA champion Kyle Dake, who made history at Cornell by becoming the first NCAA Division I collegiate wrestler to win titles in four different weight classes, came agonizingly close to making the 2016 Olympic team at 86kg in the Olympic Trials in Iowa City April 10.
He reached the finals before losing, 4-3 in the third, to surprise winner J’ren Cox, a Missouri junior and NCAA champion.
Trailing 4-2 late in the third and final match, Dake had one of Cox’s legs, needing a takedown. But he managed to only push Cox out of bounds for one point.
Dake, 25, had moved up from the 74kg/163 lb. weight class dominated by defending Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs, who qualified for the Olympic team as expected.
The weight class still has to be qualified, but it would be a stunner if the U.S. team — the weight class’ fate now in Cox’s hands — failed to qualify in one of two tournaments. The first, in Mongolia, begins Wednesday. If Cox, 21, fails to finish in the top three there, the last chance is in Turkey May 6-8, where he would need a top-two finish.
Above: Courtesy Caroline Summers/Samford Athletics
Middle: Courtesy South Africa Media Relations