Banyana Banyana veteran Noko Matlou is reaping the benefits of the reinvention she underwent a few seasons ago when she switched from being a striker to a defender.
After many years of playing as a forward, her breakthrough happened when she moved to the rearguard of the formation and she clinched a transfer to Spanish club SD Eibar.
To show her value, Matlou has been a force in defence – but has not lost her predatory instincts.
She scored a brace for Banyana in her first game for the national team in more than a year last week when they trounced Zambia 3-1.
“I am still playing as a defender, but I also like to contribute to the attack. Converting to the back has paid off for me because it was the reason I got signed by a team in Europe.
“They saw me playing at the Fifa Women’s World Cup and they were in need of someone like me,” Matlou told City Press a few hours before she flew back to Spain on Wednesday.
“It was a good feeling to be back with Banyana and to score after almost two years. The last time I was with the team was in 2019, when we played against Japan.
“I have always thought that if I did well at my club, I would get another call-up. So I have been working hard at my club.”
Matlou realised her dream of securing a move abroad last September when she joined Eibar on a one-year deal.
The 35-year-old proved that it’s never too late to realise a dream as a footballer.
“Age is just a number. Look at players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Marta and [Megan] Rapinoe who are still playing and doing well despite being on the other side of 30. It’s all about determination and hard work,” she said.
Eibar, a city in the province of Gipuzkoa in the northern region of Spain, is a long way away from Matlou’s home village of Moletjie just outside Polokwane in Limpopo.
Since her transfer to the LaLiga side, Matlou has had to adapt quickly to life in Spain. She admitted that it took her some time to acclimatise to Europe, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I had to adjust to the way they do things because the language, the food and the training are so different [from South Africa].
“That is why it took me a long time to adapt, and Covid-19 has not made it easy. The training is very intense because the game is very demanding. We train at high intensity to be able to play games every week against top teams.
“I have learnt a bit of Spanish, but I only know the basics. [Team-mate] Thembi [Kgatlana] has been in Spain for longer, so she is better [with Spanish] than me. I use my phone to help me with some translations and my team-mates also assist.”
Eibar are currently 12th in their first season in the top flight with 26 points from 25 games.
Matlou is eager to help the team finish the season in a respectable position and hopefully earn a contract extension.
“I get a sense of pride whenever we get clean sheets during games. Our team got promoted last year, so we are doing our best to ensure that we survive and finish in a good position.
“I signed with the team for a year, so we will see what happens at the end of the season. But my aim is to remain in Europe whether it’s with my current team or another,” she admitted.
Coming from a village, Matlou grew up on a diet of pap and spinach. There is none of that in Spain. In fact, Matlou said she had to give up some traditional staple foods she grew up eating to have longevity in her football career.
“I miss the food at home very much. The food in Spain is very different – they mostly eat ready-made food there,” she said.
“So, there is no pap or anything like that. But as a professional, I only eat certain foods, so it’s not a problem for me that I can’t eat some foods.”