The growing popularity of women's football in South Africa has led to the launch of the Absa Women's League, an initiative for the growth and development of the women's side of the sport. The country joins England, Spain, the US, and others that hold major tournaments for women footballers.
The Union of European Football Associations also has a women's championship, and there is a Fifa Women's World Cup, held, like the men's tournament, on a four-yearly basis. The next such event is scheduled for 2011 in Germany.
The local league, which will be run by national banking group Absa in partnership with the South African Football Association (Safa), kicked off at the Development Centre in Klipspruit, Soweto, earlier in February. Absa's contribution to the scheme is a massive R20-million ($2-million) and will run concurrently with its sponsorship of the men's game.
Interest in women's football has been growing steadily, especially since the international success of the national team Banyana Banyana, but sponsorship opportunities have been scarce and have hindered development. Absa's involvement is expected to breathe new life into the game.
A national women's league was launched in 2001, with Safa and insurance company Sanlam the driving forces. Sanlam's sponsorship ended in 2003 but mobile provider Vodacom stepped into the gap. Vodacom withdrew its backing at the start of the 2007/2008 season, leaving women's football adrift.
Despite the uncertainties, women footballers have still managed to make their mark on the continent and abroad, with a number of South Africans currently playing for top clubs overseas.
In an October 2008 interview with online magazine gsport ... for Girls!, former Banyana captain Desiree Ellis lamented the lack of sponsorship for women's football in South Africa.
"Players are looking for jobs," she said, "and most players stop playing, as football doesn't put food on the table. Sponsorship is non-existent and it is strange that corporates like 1st for Women and Foschini, who sell women's products, have not come on board."
It is not surprising that there are high hopes for the brand new Absa Women's League. The banking group is thrilled to be able to assist with the development of women's soccer, said Group Executive of Marketing Mohale Ralebitso.
"The Absa Women's League promises to bring a whole new dimension and lots of excitement to the Beautiful Game," said Ralebitso. "We sincerely hope that individual and team talent will be exposed both locally and abroad. Such partnerships can only elevate the game to greater levels and afford the players and fans a chance to revel in the beauty and wonder that each game offers."
The newly crowned Confederation of African Football (CAF) Woman Footballer of the Year, Banyana striker Noko Alice Matlou, was the guest of honour at the launch. "It is encouraging that the corporate world is serious about football at this level," she remarked.
The tournament will take place in two phases. Phase one will extend across the country throughout all 52 Safa regions. An average of 12 teams per region - 624 players in all - will ensure fierce competition and lively play. Regional winners will go forward to a provincial play-off in phase two, and two teams per province will be promoted to the provincial women's league.
Safa CEO Raymond Hack expects the new initiative to take women's football development to another level and unleash the untapped potential of South Africa's female footballers.
"This new tournament is an important grooming ground for future stars of the nation," said Hack. "It is from these development structures where Noko Matlou was spotted two years ago; and this week she was named the CAF African woman player of 2008. We are confident that the Absa Women's League will unearth more diamonds."
South Africa's women footballers excelled at the international level in 2008. For the first time ever the national team Banyana Banyana made it to the finals of the African Women's Championship in November 2008.
The tournament, under the auspices of CAF, was played in Equatorial Guinea. The hosts were ultimately victorious but South Africa's Matlou was the joint top scorer of the event and shared the Golden Boot prize with Genevova Anonma of the host team.
Earlier in the year the national under-20 team, Basetsana, won the Women's Championship of the Council of Southern Africa Football Associations, the only regional tournament of its kind. Basetsana's 2008 win marked South Africa's third consecutive victory and gave the national women's team the right to retain the trophy permanently.
Once again Matlou was the star of the show, scoring a hat-trick in the final and finishing as the most prolific scorer. The striker's heroics did not go unrewarded, as she walked off with the top honour for a woman footballer at CAF's glittering annual awards ceremony held in Lagos, Nigeria, earlier in February.
At home, the sport has been graced with the feminine touch behind the whistle as well. In 2007 former player Deidre Mitchell became the first woman to referee a Premier Soccer League (PSL) game, when she took to the field for a Santos and Kaizer Chiefs clash. Mitchell handled the game with superb confidence, according to reports, booking no fewer than four players in the first half.
"I was very happy with her performance," said Ari Soldatos, the PSL referees appointment officer, afterwards. "She did the refereeing fraternity proud."
Mitchell has since been appointed to the Fifa panel of international referees and officiated at a summer Olympic Games match between the Japanese and New Zealand women's teams in Beijing in August 2008. Mitchell was the only woman referee to represent the African continent, although she was accompanied by two assistant referees, Tempa Ndah Francois from Benin, and South Africa's Nomvula Masilela.