Namibia News

Zenatha Coleman carries a heavy load as Namibia’s lone ambassador

For a footballer from Keetmanshoop, Namibia, to thrive in Spain’s premier division is as rare as a rainy day in the Namib desert, but Zenatha Coleman is no ordinary footballer.

Coleman, who plays for Sevilla and is currently Namibia’s sole representative in a European top flight team [Ryan Nyambe plays for Blackburn Rovers in the Championship] has had a journey few would have anticipated.

For context: Keetmanshoop is a small city in the middle of the desert, in the hot and dusty ǁKaras region of southern Namibia, with roughly the same number of people as Juneau, Alaska [around 30,000] and just as sparse.

For every one person in Keetmanshoop, there are approximately 16 in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, which is roughly the size of Newcastle in the UK. Neither Namibian city has produced many international football stars, male or female.

Namibia’s women’s team is ranked 143rd in the world and their players rarely move abroad. Annouscka Kordom signed for Israel’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva last October, while Vewe Kotjipati has made her name for herself in Germany’s lower leagues, but neither comes close to matching Coleman’s level of league achievement.

But with the stardom comes the pressure from all sides, and nowhere does Coleman, 27, feel that more than with the national team, of which she is overwhelmingly the face and, by default, the voice.

As national team captain, Coleman has had to endure frustrating professional challenges, in recent years, and is usually the player others turn to for help, advice, and encouragement, even when she is as fed up as they are.

After the Namibian Football Association (NFA) failed to send the Brave Gladiators to the COSAFA Women’s Championship in South Africa last year, supposedly for financial reasons, Coleman took direct and damning aim at the governing body on social media.

For context, Namibians, on average, earn around $500 a month, and that’s taking into account that Namibia, like South Africa, is one of the more unequal societies on earth when it comes to wealth distribution so most people earn much less than that. Namibia has an unemployment rate of just over 20%.

Coleman told ESPN that despite being national team captain, she had not heard from the NFA since airing her concerns in public.

“I haven’t received any email or call from the federation. They just went quiet on us,” Coleman said.

“It pains me. Every time I have to come back home for national team [duty], the girls are unfed, there are no camps, the preparations are not going well. It affects me as much as it affects the team.

“I thought they would send [us] to the COSAFA [Championship] because it was a really great opportunity for us to earn a little bit of money. Most of the players don’t work or study. They only rely on football. [The NFA] only sent the [U20] boys. It was very disappointing.

“Right now, the women’s national team doesn’t even have a [permanent] coach. We have to go and qualify for AFCON next year. I really want to go and qualify, but if there’s no coach and no camps, nothing is going to change and nothing is going to happen for women’s football. I don’t think it’s going to change, ever.

“Sometimes, when I come back from training, I have girls that complain [to me]… They don’t have voices. I’m the captain and I’m the only one that can stand up to those people. The players are afraid to even say something because they are scared they won’t be called up to the national team again.

“It’s crazy. I think it puts a lot of pressure on me. Right now, everyone thinks: ‘Oh, there’s Zenatha Coleman.’ A team doesn’t consist of one player. It needs the technical team, the administration, the players — everyone to be involved to be successful.”

NFA President Ranga Haikali declined to respond to Coleman’s comments when contacted by ESPN, saying that the president of the NFA should not be expected to publicly address allegations made by an individual Namibian player.

So given all the setbacks, the lack of funding, the seeming lack of government support, how did Coleman get from middle-of-the-desert Keetmanshoop to Europe in the first place, let alone to two of Spain’s better women’s sides, first at Valencia, and now Sevilla?

The answer lies with family, one blood and one chosen.

Coleman’s love of football was inspired chiefly by her grandfather, Johannes Coleman, who once played for Namibia’s Orlando Pirates, and passed his love of the game to his entire family.

“My grandfather is my greatest inspiration because he was the one who taught me to juggle a ball and kick against the wall,” Coleman said.

“He held my hand to go and watch my uncles play. Now, he’s very sick. He had a stroke five years back. He can’t speak or anything. I just wish he could give me advice before a game,” an emotional Coleman continued.

“I just wish he could come to see me; come to see how I played in Valencia. The first year when he got sick, I remember I had to go play for my national team and still he wanted to come see me and then they brought him over and I was just full of emotions. It doesn’t matter how sick he is — he just wants to see me play.”

Coleman, fortunately, can count on the guidance of another important figure, who came into her life shortly before her grandfather’s health took a turn for the worse.

Her agent, Nandaemua “Sonny” Maharero, spotted her in 2014 when she was playing for Namibia at the African Women’s Championship on home soil and the pair have worked wonders for each other’s careers.

“There were scouts, but I was not really intent on being scouted. I was just playing to represent my country. After this tournament finished, I got a call saying there was an agent who wanted to see me,” Coleman recalled.

But she’d already gone back home and was unable to meet with said agent, though he stuck with it and soon set up a meeting with Coleman, her grandfather, and the NFA. A deal was struck, and his job to make her a star began.

Coleman had already begun to carve a path for herself at JS Academy and her talent had been honed further at Windhoek side Tura Magic. However, it was through Maharero that she would fulfil her dream of playing overseas, though not in the big leagues yet.

But, to add to the twists and turns of her story, while at JS Academy Coleman learned at age 18 that she was pregnant, heavily so before she realised it.

“I only found out when I was six months pregnant, and all those games I was playing [without knowing],” Coleman recalled to ESPN.

After the birth of her son, who recently turned nine, Coleman had a new reason to fight for glory on the field of play. However, she has had to pay a price for fulfilling her dreams, as her son remains in Namibia with the rest of her family while she is earning a living overseas.

Meanwhile, the agent was immediately convinced by what he saw of Coleman, with her Neymar-esque hairstyle and her stunning free-kick in a 3-1 defeat to Ivory Coast standing out in his memory.

However, despite her nomination for the 2014 CAF Women’s Footballer of the Year prize, it took some convincing before Gintra, in Lithuania’s top flight, were as confident about Coleman as he was.

He told ESPN: “There was a little bit of a wait and we couldn’t get her out of the country [for a trial]. Gintra were not convinced, so we spoke to the [Namibian Football] Association.

“Thanks [must go] to the former secretary general, Barry Rukoro. He gave us a chance and we took the whole national team to Spain, to Valencia, to go play in the [2015] COTIF women’s tournament.”

It was essentially a whole-team trip to get Coleman an audition, and it paid off in the short term, with Gintra sold on her talent. The trip paid dividends in the long run too, as Coleman had caught the attention of clubs in Spain, which would later become her home.

Coleman shone on the European stage for Gintra, reaching the UEFA Champions League last 16 in 2017/18. She won league titles in 2016 and 2017 and was the top scorer in the latter campaign.

After netting an astonishing 110 goals in 31 matches, her eyes turned elsewhere as she sought a league better suited to her performance levels, making a bit of a mockery of Gintra’s early reluctance.

Zaragoza CFF signed Coleman in 2018 and she was an instant success in the Primera Iberdrola, scoring seven goals in 14 appearances in her debut season. However, having arrived midway through the campaign, she was unable to save Zaragoza from relegation.

Coleman was unimpressed: “I really wanted to play in the Premier Division of Spain and I thought, ‘I don’t really want to go and play in the Second Division because for me, it will feel like Lithuania.'”

Coleman moved on to Valencia, where she quickly made a home for herself. She scored 11 league goals in 47 appearances there as the team finished eighth in 2018/19 and 15th in 2019/20. However, after COVID-19 put football on hold in 2020, Coleman was released.

“It was very difficult [to leave Valencia]. I knew I would not be staying at Valencia for the next season and I really wanted to complete the season, and then the pandemic came,” Coleman said.

Desperate to be close to her son and extended family during the coronavirus pandemic, Coleman returned home to Keetmanshoop despite being a free agent, thus risking a future opportunity not coming along.

“I just wanted to go back home because the family was very worried. Even if there was a club that wanted to sign me, I just wanted to go home and see my people,” she recalled.

“Once I arrived in Namibia, after three days, I got a call from my agent. He said, ‘There are two clubs interested. We’re going to start negotiating and we’ll see how it goes.'”

According to Coleman, advances from Real Betis and Espanyol were snubbed in favour of her current club, Sevilla. Maharero, meanwhile, said that Sevilla’s prestige set them apart from other teams who had made enquiries.

Sevilla finished 11th last season with 22 points from 21 matches, but have long since surpassed that total with the same number of games played in 2020/21. Although this season has been largely positive and Coleman has featured regularly, she aims to improve her personal contribution.

“Right now, I’m currently sitting on two goals. It’s frustrating. As a forward player, I should be at least around seven or eight goals right now. With the teams we play against, it’s very frustrating to be honest,” she lamented.

Coleman went on to score her third of the season against Santa Teresa shortly after her interview with ESPN.

No longer the wide-eyed youngster from Keetmanshoop, Coleman has faced her fair share of setbacks and battles since rising to prominence, but she still carries one dream which she has held since the beginning of her career.

“I really want to play in the English Premier League [the FAWSL] because there are a lot of teams that I [like] — the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea. I think it’s quite an interesting league to play in.”

At 27 years old, Coleman does still have some time on her side to make it to England. She faces an uncertain future with club and country alike, but for the time being, her relentless desire for self-improvement is a crucial asset to Sevilla.

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