Banyana Banyana striker Leandra Smeda is the first ever South African woman to score in the UEFA Women’s Champions League competition.
She’s also the second SA player to play in this competition after midfielder Nompumelelo Nyandeni, who was on the books of Russian side WC Rossiyinka.
Smeda has already played five matches since joining her new side, Gintra Universitetas of Lithuania – three in the Amber Cup, one in the Baltic and the most recent match in the Champions League.
Chomi, as she is known among her friends, grabbed a 91st-minute equaliser when they faced Finland champions, Espoo FC Honka in the qualifying rounds this week.
There are four teams in this round, and the top finisher will proceed to the last 32.
‘We played a very strong team, in fact, the strongest in the group, so the 1-1 draw was a great result for us. I felt very good scoring that equaliser when we thought we had lost the game. What was even more exciting was that I played the full match, my first since I arrived here. It was a very tough and exciting game,’ said an elated Smeda from Lithuania.
The Cape Town-born player described her goal as one of the most important strikes of her career.
‘It was almost similar to the one I scored in Zimbabwe during the COSAFA Cup. It was open play and we were in attack, one of our players was fouled in the box and as we were appealing for a penalty the referee wasn’t interested, so we continued with play,’ added Smeda
‘One of my teammates took a shot and the goalkeeper parried it into my path, and I just headed it back to goal – in fact, I thought she had it, but it slipped through her fingers and there was jubilation all around. It was not a spectacular goal but a very crucial one for the team, which gave us a great result.’
The Banyana Banyana utility player says she’s learned to adjust to her new life after making a move to the Eastern European side a month ago.
‘I’m really enjoying myself here, and I’m glad I made the move. Life is very good, and yes I do miss home but thanks to technology I get to speak to them almost every day. What is also helping the situation is that there is just one hour difference and that makes things a lot easier for me to contact my family and friends,’ said Smeda.
‘The food is awesome and the weather is lovely – it can get to 32 degrees Celsius on a good day, so I am loving every minute of it. I also miss my Banyana Banyana teammates, especially now that they are in camp, but I also get to chat to them and they update me about everything – so it’s like I am also in camp.’
The greatest challenge for Smeda at the moment is the language – not many speak English, but she is working on speaking Lithuanian.
‘I have very chilled teammates who welcomed me nicely. There are five new players in the team, all foreigners – myself, a Brazilian, an American and two from Serbia. But in the squad, we also have players from Russia, Ukraine and Bulgaria – and all of this makes the language barrier huge. In fact, it is a killer, more so because our coach is Lithuanian and does not speak English, so we have to rely on the physiotherapist and the assistant coach to translate for us,’ said Smeda.
She’s enjoying every minute when she walks on to the field, even though it is different to what she is accustomed to in South Africa.
‘Play here is a very quick, very physical and direct. Most of the teams we play against are from neighboring countries – Poland and Kazakhstan. There is almost no dribbling here, and they like playing long balls. But I am adjusting very well as I play to the coach’s instructions. They play me in defensive midfield and sometimes in attacking midfield, and I’m enjoying the positions very much,’ said Smeda.
When not on the field or out and about in the city, Chomi focuses on her books as she is studying towards her Post Graduate Diploma in Sport Development with the University of Cape Town.
‘I still get time to do my school work and complete my assignments because education remains important. And to cool off and get my mind off things, I become a tourist in this beautiful and amazing city of about 300,000 people – it seems we all know each other here,’ added Smeda.
She still hasn’t forgotten about her mission with Banyana Banyana – to qualify for the 2019 FIFA World Cup in France.
‘To be honest, I’m glad I came here. This league will give me the kind of preparation I need for the African Women’s Cup of Nations in Ghana later this year. I am really looking forward to that tournament because we want to qualify for the World Cup – our league ends in October so I will definitely be back home,’ said Smeda.
‘For far too long we have been missing out on this big competition and I believe this is our time now, we will be more than ready. This league is really toughening me up for greater competition at the AFCON so I can help my country qualify for France.’
After starring in a prominent role during the 2017 edition where she helped Banyana Banyana lift the trophy, Smeda will miss the 2018 COSAFA Women’s Championship due to club commitment as the competition does not fall under the FIFA Calendar.
‘I would like to wish the entire team the best of luck as they attempt to defend the title we won in Zimbabwe last year. We worked very hard to win gold, we worked as a unit and I’m confident if we have that approach we’ll do it again,’ concluded Smeda.
‘I know it won’t be easy but it can be done. Remember to work for one another and everything will fall into place. All the best to everyone.’
– Smeda is the fifth South African female footballer to sign a professional contract, following in the footsteps of Janine van Wyk, Linda Motlhalo, Thembi Kgatlana (all Houston Dash, USA) and Ode Fulutudilu (Oulu Nice Soccer, Finland).
Photo: Smeda in action for Banyana Banyana, by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images