Ronaldo-inspired Zambian striker Barbra Banda: “I want to leave my mark in women’s football.”

The 20-year-old striker is the first female Zambian professional football player. Zambia will make its debut at the women's Olympic football tournament at Tokyo 2020.
By Evelyn Watta

Barbra Banda has made her mark in Zambian football.

Not only is the former professional boxer the first Zambian woman to play professional football, the 20-year-old also captained the team that qualified for the women's Olympic football tournament for the first time in their history.

“We are just not going there [Tokyo] as participants. We are going there with one aim, to reach a certain level. The teams must be ready for us. We have something in us,” Banda said in an exclusive interview with Olympic Channel.

The forward who recently signed up for Shanghai Shengli is only just beginning her pro career, but she has lofty goals and wants to be remembered as the record-setting Banda.

“I want to leave a mark, my own name, my own record book.”

Zambia striker Barbra Banda in action against Cameroon during the Women's Olympic Qualifying CAF tournament in Lusaka. (Photo by FAZ)

Historic Olympic qualification

March 2020 was a watershed month for Zambian women’s football.

The team, captained by teenager Banda, qualified for Tokyo 2020.

Even more defining was that the Southern African team had defeated continental giants Cameroon in the final round of the qualifiers to clinch an automatic ticket for the Olympics.

Zambia defeated Angola, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Kenya to reach the final round of the qualifiers.

They were never considered serious threats for the 2012 Olympians Cameroon in the final stage.

The Copper Queens, as they are popularly known, were the underdogs as they were placed 57 places below Cameroon in the FIFA rankings.

But what Cameroon may have failed to notice was their youthful enthusiasm and hunger for new records.

“Our target was to stay focused throughout, and we decided we won't under rate any team,” said Banda.

“Looking at the speed of the team the morale was very high, and I encouraged them by telling them that this was our time. We had seen what happens there at the top level. Whenever we played out there, it was like each of us was playing professional football.”

The Copper Queens' 4-4 aggregate draw against the African giants saw them qualify on the away goals rule. Zambia netted 15 goals in the qualifiers, more than any other team.

“It meant a lot for every Zambian. We made history. History that made the country to be proud of us. Everyone, everywhere was talking about us.

"It was so encouraging and a big win for women’s football, because not even the Zambian men’s team have qualified for this Olympics.”

Banda’s dream move to Spain

The 2019 season was different for Zambia’s star striker. She had just signed for Spanish Women's League side EDF Logroño whom she joined in October 2018.

She scored 16 goals in 28 games for the Spanish team and gained invaluable experience that was instrumental for the Zambian team in the qualifiers.

“I had to show them I am able and capable of doing it. I did my best and tried to help Logroño, looking at the position where I found them almost going down. I made some effort and we stayed in the top league,” she told Olympic Channel from her home in Zambia’s capital Lusaka.

“The way I used to play in Zambia and how I played in Europe was quite different.

"The Spanish league is very strong and competitive. Each team you play, offers good competition. [Playing in Spain] helped me to improve in so many ways."

It was a huge career leap for Banda. Like many African female footballers, she stumbled onto the sport.

As a young girl she was forced to play football at school during Games time.

It was a sport she was well acquainted with.

I started playing at a really tender age around seven to eight years. I got inspired by my dad. He was also in football. He used to encourage me every time to do my practices. I used to go with him when he was playing and that is where I got the courage from.”

Her skills would not go unnoticed for long. At 16, she made her debut for the Zambian U-17 team that played at the 2014 World Cup amidst opposition from her parents.

“Most parents do not allow (their daughters) to take part in sports like football. They say football is for boys. I went through that. But they did not stop me because I used to combine both school and football.

"There was a time they told me if I do not concentrate on school and only concentrate on football, then I will have to stop playing football. So, I had to balance the two. They accepted me as a footballer when I got my first national team call-up.”

Banda's boxing detour

But another sport was also chasing after the talented forward.

Women's boxing was picking up in her country. Compatriot Catherine Phiri had become the first African boxer to win the World Boxing Council bantamweight title, an achievement that inspired Banda.

“I got into boxing when I was around 14 or 15 years. My coach encouraged me saying I can do well in boxing. A lot of people too thought I was good in boxing,” she recalled her time in the ring when she got bit by the boxing bug.

I never lost any bout I won all the fights. I tried to have some fights then I decided to concentrate on one thing, and I settled for football.”

She still packs some punches to boost her stamina, speed and her agility on the pitch.

I am still boxing not for fighting, but only to keep fit. Boxing has a lot of exercises which keeps me in good shape.”

Play like Ronaldo

In January, Banda moved to Shanghai Shengli, the runner-up in the Chinese Women's Super League last season.

Another chapter with plenty more experiences, she reckons.

“I am still young, still playing and developing my football so I dream big. I want to be among the top. That is my biggest dream to be among the top girls in the world. My aim is to leave a mark, my own name, my own record book.”

Banda admires Cristiano Ronaldo’s work ethic. She hopes to emulate his form and his clinical touch in front of goal.

“I have the confidence and courage because I know football the way it is. The one who wants it the most is the one who is going to get it,” she continued.

“I like the way Cristiano Ronaldo plays. I like his discipline. I have the same strength. I run a lot and do the dribbles. I can do something where you did not expect anything, and you just be like... 'Okay, Banda just did that!'"

Banda is itching to transfer her continental form and club achievements onto the global stage.

“I know people are talking a lot about me, that motivates me. That gives me courage to say okay, ‘if everyone is looking up to me then I have to do my best and show them how proud they are of me.’

"I must deliver good things for them. Play the way I play, make them proud so that they can be happy.”