Motlhalo, the unheralded maestro in South Africa's midfield

Linda Mothlalo of South Africa during the 2018 TOTAL African Womens Cup of Nations Final match between Nigeria and South Africa on the 01 December 2018 at Accra Sports Stadium, Ghana  Pic Sydney MahlanguBackpageP

South Africa are enjoying one of the best moments in international women's football, notably with a huge win over nine-time African champions Nigeria at the Aisha Buhari Cup in Lagos.

The long-sought breakthrough era on the biggest stage came true at the Total Women's Africa Cup of Nations Ghana 2018 with a ticket to France 2019, four years after a heartbreaking narrow miss of the Women's World Cup Canada 2015.

South Africans dreaming of their own crop of talented youngsters one day dominating the continent and also shining on the global scene, will be fully excited the country has begun to make a mark after years of many regional strides.

Thembi Kgatlana, Gabriela Salgado, Robyn Moodaly, Hildah Magaia, Sibulele Holweni are among those who came through the ranks and are establishing themselves in the Banyana Banyana squad to become regulars and still under the age of 25.

Linda Mothlalo during the 2018 TOTAL African Womens Cup of Nations, Banyana Training the 19 November 2018 at Ndoum Stadium, Ghana  Pic Sydney MahlanguBackpagePix

Linda Motlhalo may have turned 23 in July but she is already being considered the fulcrum of Banyana under the watch of coach Desiree Ellis, making 44 caps and scoring nine times since her senior debut in 2015 - despite being just 17 at the time.

Born in Brandvlei, Motlhalo honed her football skills at JVW FC before securing her first professional deal with American side Houston Dash in 2018, then Beijing Phoenix a year later and now Djurgardens, where she has been cutting her teeth since 2020.

"I have been enjoying myself, even though in my first year I played as a defensive midfielder, which isn’t my position," Motlhalo, who won the 2018 COSAFA Women's Cup golden boot, told CAFOnline.com.

"But now, I am back to where I love to play and with the new coach (Magnus Palsson), things are looking great for me.

"I am the kind of player willing to learn, I asked a lot of questions from the coach in Sweden about what I need to do, that was how I adapted."

Since moving to Stockholm, the South African has been a regular feature, starting 37 times in her 40 Damallsvenskan outings, with two goals for the Swedish Damallsvenskan outfit so far.

"I remember a lot, we had a good game against Nigeria, it was unfortunate that we missed a penalty, but it is part of the game and we keep moving," Linda Mothalo

Her quick adaptation to life in Sweden wouldn't have been a smoother start without the presence of African sisters - Cameroon's Alexandra Takounda, Ghana duo Portia Boakye and Elizabeth Addo at the club.

"I am far from home, and having an African home is really good, we talk about our national teams, I am enjoying myself," she admitted.

"I have Portia and Addo in the team. I have played against Addo, who is one of Africa's best midfielders, in the US and China and now we play in the same team, we understand one another well."

In September, the midfielder made her return to the Banyana fold for the first time since France 2019 at the Aisha Buhari Cup and she couldn't hide her excitement as one of the six foreign-based stars.

"The last time I represented Banyana Banyana was at France 2019 Women's World Cup," said Motlhalo, who hails from a football family.

"I always say when I get the call up I do not take it for granted, so I am really honoured to be representing the country and I was looking forward to playing against Nigeria. I just tried to enjoy myself."

Ngozi Okobi of Nigeria challenged by Linda Mothlalo of South Africa during the 2018 TOTAL African Womens Cup of Nations Final match between Nigeria and South Africa on the 01 December 2018 at Accra Sports Stadium

South Africa came close to celebrating their first-ever continental crown at Ghana in 2018 but Motlhalo still ruins her penalty miss which saw Banyana suffer a heartbreaking final loss to Nigeria.

"I remember a lot, we had a good game against Nigeria, it was unfortunate that we missed a penalty, but it is part of the game and we keep moving," she recounted.

Three years later, Banyana thrashed the West Africans 4-2 to win the Aisha Buhari Cup and the Djurgardens star, who was pivotal in their biggest triumph, recounted memories leading to the unprecedented feat.

"We knew them, they knew us, the only thing was trying to be unpredictable in the formations and the style of our play," she narrated.

"For example, Nigeria is very physical, we needed to be quicker and faster than them. We also needed to outplay them and we showed confidence that we are no longer afraid of them.

"It was more than ability on the field because mentally, we are on a different level, you would see we encourage one another all the time, I think we did well against Nigeria."

Linda Mothlalo of South Africa awarded TOTAL Woman of the match during the 2018 TOTAL African Womens Cup of Nations semi final match between South Africa and Mali on the 27 November 2018 at Cape Coast Stadium, Gh

Before humbling Nigeria, Ellis' team thrashed Ghana 3-0 to end a six-match winless streak and the South African admitted exchanging words with her club teammates from Ghana before the tie.

"We communicated while at Djurgardens and we knew we would play each other at the tournament," Motlhalo opened up.

"We talked about playing each other, how interesting the game was and how strong our teams would be, but we didn’t talk about the scoreline. Ghana was more physical than us, so we knew we needed to play faster than them.

"First half was a bit rusty, but eventually we played as a team and were able to score three goals. Back in the days we used to struggle but now we have got momentum, which keeps us going."

Banyana suffered a rare defeat at the 2021 COSAFA Women's Cup but will reorganise themselves as they begin their 2022 Women's AFCON qualification campaign against Mozambique, which they thrashed 3-1 recently.

Linda Mothlalo of South Africa is tackled by of Cecilia Akeng Nengono of Equatorial Guinea during the 2018 TOTAL African Womens Cup of Nations match between Equatorial Guinbea and South Africa on the 21 November

Coach Ellis named six overseas-based professionals, including Mothalo for the showdown and the Sweden based star is confident they can build on their fine form displayed at the Lagos invitational tournament.

"I think one thing that would help us is getting more friendly matches and international games, which helps us get momentum and some goals," she enthused.

"The tournament (Aisha Buhari Cup) helped us to prepare and see what we have as a team. It is fortunate for us to play against the top two teams in Africa in our preparation for Women's Afcon and we know where we stand."

This time, Mothalo will hope to put on display again her superb form at the heart of Banyana's midfield when they turn out at the Estadio Nacional de Zimpeto against the Mozambican side on Wednesday.