Very few footballers anywhere in the world shot to prominence in 2021 quite like Zambia forward Barbra Banda. A name familiar to those who follow the women’s game in-depth, but perhaps an unknown to many, Banda changed that in the space of four incredible days during the summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.
It was the very first appearance for the Copper Queens at a women’s football tournament, and ranked outside the world’s top 100, few gave them a chance of competing in a group that included China, Brazil and European champions, the Netherlands.
A 10-3 defeat in their opening game against the latter emphasised the gap, but was memorable for the 21-year-old scoring an extraordinary hat-trick, with two or her goals coming in the space of a minute towards the end of the game with the result already beyond doubt.
As if that wasn’t enough, Banda hit another hat-trick just three days later in a thrilling 4-4 draw against China, becoming the first player ever to score back-to-back Olympic hat-tricks.
Sitting in her hotel room in China where she is undergoing mandatory isolation after returning from a national team camp, Banda reflects on a period that propelled into the eyes of the world on the biggest stage available. “I never thought I would represent Zambia on that kind of stage,” she says. “I always told myself it’s about hard work and determination that gets you there and then suddenly I found myself representing my country at an Olympics.”
Throughout our interview, Banda is humble, but more than anything continuously emphasises how her whole career has, and will continue to be, about hard work, about determination, that she hasn’t yet come close to achieving what she wants, even reflecting that the tournament was somewhat of a disappointment despite what they were up against and the personal history she made.
“We didn’t do our level best to go to the second round, but for our team just being there was a great achievement, for our country, for Africa, because we were the only African team there. It was history for us just to qualify for Tokyo. The achievement of scoring those two hat-tricks, it’s just the result of what kind of person I am. I work hard, I am always there for my team and for my country and all I do is aim to do the best for my country.”
Despite only turning 21 this year and having a large part of her career still in front of her, it has been a long and eventful journey for Banda just to get to where she is now, growing up in a country where women’s football was far from prominent.
Banda joined an academy as a youngster and spent over 10 years there, and it was the motivation she got from her dad in particular which inspired her to continue following her dream. “For me, I started very early, I just used to go and play football with my dad. At the academy, that’s when I started playing competitively in a league for women in Zambia.
“Things happened quite quickly. At the age of 13 I was called up for trials for the under 17 national team and ended up doing to play in Costa Rica at the under 17 World Cup in Costa Rica.”
Yes, at the age of just 13, Banda was representing her nation at a major FIFA tournament, where she was incredibly only the second-youngest player behind 12-year-old Ghanaian defender Fuseina Mumuni; a tournament that saw Banda suddenly gracing the same pitches as other promising youngsters such as Deyna Castellanos, Lea Schüller, Jessie Fleming, Patri Guijarro and Aitana Bonmatí.
“After that I moved clubs, went to a bigger club, the Green Buffalos in Zambia. I think that’s when I started with the senior national team and started to become a bit more well-known to people.
“As time went on I was still so inspired by my dad,” she recalls. “He was always there for me in terms of football. It’s interesting because it was really only him who was interested, my mum didn’t want me to play football. I wanted to play and my dad encouraged me, but my mum wanted me to go to school and get an education. But, now they’re both happy with how I’m doing.”
By this time Banda was starting to gain attention from around the world as she looked to take the next step in her career, and found an agent, Anton, who is on the call too, with the pair now having worked together for several years and formed a close working relationship.
Several Spanish clubs in particular were interested in signing Banda in the summer of 2018 but weren’t overly convinced about taking who was then a relatively unknown African striker who hadn’t played football outside Zambia.
There was also the issue of the looming annual COSAFA Cup in Africa, which would take place in September at the very start of the European season, with several interested clubs demanding Banda miss the tournament. One of those who passed up the opportunity was relegated at the end of the season.
In the end, newly-promoted Logroño took the chance on Banda and the teenager went on to score 16 goals in 28 league appearances for the club across a two-year stay in Spain. “That was a great move or me and I always thank Anton, he has always been there for me,” she smiles. “He knows what it takes to have a player and put trust in that player when nobody else believes in you. He believed in me and made it possible for me to move to Spain.
“Many clubs wouldn’t accept African players, they didn’t think we were at that level, but I went there and showed in Africa that we do have good players. Everyone there was happy with me. The players, the management, everyone was happy. I enjoyed Spain, it was competitive, they love football there and every game was very hard and very strong.”
It was not just a big move for Banda on the pitch, but off it. It meant a first move away not just from Zambia, but Africa. At the age of 18, Banda was leaving behind everything and everyone she’d ever known in the search of making football a career for her and to show other young girls in Zambia it could be done.
“Being the first time, my parents were a bit worried, but I think there was a good side as well because they’d got used to me going away for weeks and months with the national team. I think that contributed to them understanding, they had to accept it.”
It wasn’t just her family Banda had to convince either. Extraordinarily, Banda was undergoing mandatory military service in Zambia at the time and had to get permission from the colonel of the Zambian army which she laughs “wasn’t easy” when discussing the story.
“It was so difficult! That’s why I really appreciate Anton, because he worked so hard for me. I was coming from military service, there was a lot of paperwork, a lot of explanations, so it wasn’t easy. The Zambian army commander is now the women’s representative for women’s football in Zambia. She did a lot of good work for me to get permission from the colonel of the army which meant I could go to Spain.”
At the start of 2020, Banda left Spain and indeed Europe and opted to move to China and play for Shanghai Shengli, but her debut had to wait after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic meant a much more condensed season played over the course of just three months towards the end of the year.
Despite fewer games than planned, Banda scored an incredible 18 goals in her debut season, nine clear of the next best, fellow African forward Temwa Chawinga. “It’s a good league,” she says. “I came here, did my best and was the top scorer, which was a great achievement for me.”
Her second year saw her miss a large chunk of the campaign due to her involvement in the Olympic Games, which is still where her most vivid memories remain as she still looks to really take in what she achieved in Tokyo.
“It has been so overwhelming,” she admits. “I think everyone was proud of me, breaking those records is not easy. A lot of people have passed a lot of compliments about me and I’m happy about that, but I can’t be relaxed about what people comment on and the praise they give me. I have to keep focused on working hard and hopefully breaking more records on top of what I did in the summer.
“I still maintain the same aims, the same discipline I have always portrayed. I just have to work even harder now to make sure I still have those nice messages from people in the future.”
It’s a self-image Banda is keen to maintain, wary of the impact she is having not just back home in Zambia, but all around Africa, where she has quickly become one of the most iconic footballers on the continent.
With Zambia now aiming to back up their Olympic Games appearance with a first World Cup in 2023, Banda wants to juggle what she is doing on the pitch with ensuring she remains a role model for young girls off it. “I just have to show a good example to everyone who looks up to me, that’s the most important thing. They look up to me and as their icon I have to show good manners so they copy that.
“As soon as I do something bad, I will become a bad example to everyone. The best way to show myself is to stay out of those things. I just have to focus on doing what I’m doing and keep only inspiring more people in my country and around Africa.”
It’s a role she admits though is “not easy”, especially given the extra reputation she now has off the back of those four incredible days in Tokyo. “I don’t know what to say. I still remember it all the time. I didn’t expect it, I just did my best and I showed what I can do. Like I said, for me, I still want to work hard and just continue what I’m doing.
“Women have not always been supported in Zambia, but you saw people cheering us at the Olympics and it has changed since. There is a Champions League now in Africa, I think we are heading somewhere step by step. We don’t feel like we have everything we need as women, but we have shown we are here, we exist, we play the same football. We get positive messages from fans, they are talking about women’s football in Zambia, we are putting it on the map for people.”
After two years in Spain, it may just be two years in China too, as Banda is looking ahead to the future and what may await her given the attention she has received. While she’s giving little away as to what may lay ahead, it’s clear she has ambitions to make a move to a top team and continue fulfilling her ambitions.
“I always want to try new things experience football in different clubs and different players. I enjoyed playing here, but if anything comes up I want to experience other kinds of football. I am ok here, I enjoy, it’s a good league, better than people think. I’m still very young. My main target is to play in the Champions League – we will see what happens. I just do what I do, I work hard and hope for the best in my future.”
By Rich Laverty @RichJLaverty