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A ray of sunshine in the eye of the storm

“It doesn’t matter where you come from, or your background or how poor you are – as long as you have the will and the opportunity, then anything is possible.”

If Refiloe Jane’s immediate career situation were to be described meteorologically, the talented South African footballer is well and truly stuck in the eye of a truly fierce global storm which she, along with the global football, sport and civil fraternity, hopes will soon pass.

The long days of glistening sunshine had been well-earned by the humble and soft-spoken star whose career had blossomed since being spotted as a skilful secondary school student and drafted into South Africa’s 2012 Olympic Games training squad almost a decade ago.

The days of seemingly torrential downpours growing up on the dusty streets of Soweto, one of South Africa’s poorest townships, were blown away by a whirlwind of talent, determination and sheer willpower as Jane’s rainbow of success grew ever brighter.

Not only did she represent, and captain, South Africa at three FISU Summer Student Games, but she became a mainstay in the country’s senior national team, helping them achieve regional and continental success before helping them qualify for their maiden appearance at last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup – all this before proudly graduating with a Sports Management degree from the Vaal University of Technology.

Following a momentous 2018/19 season alongside compatriot Rhoda Mulaudzi at Australian club Canberra United – where the duo became the first two South African female footballers to play Down Under – yet another ray of sunshine illuminated the midfielder’s dazzling career as she signed for European giants AC Milan in September last year, again rewriting the history books as the first South African female footballer to ply their trade in Italy.

Despite the undoubted jump in level from her previous experiences playing in South Africa and Australia, the South African vice-captain fearlessly rose to the occasion as she made herself a mainstay in the Rossonere team, starting 14 out of the 15 games played so far this season – chipping in with two goals from the midfield as well – before the ever-darkening cloud of COVID-19 put a halt to the Italian league in February.

The coronavirus storm then hit Italy in full force, shutting down the nation and leaving the South African stranded in a foreign land and unable to return home. The storm has continued to rage on as Italy became the epicentre of the pandemic in Europe with almost 200 000 cases and over 25 00 deaths (at the time of writing).

Having only signed a one-year contract, almost three months of Jane’s dream move to Italy have been wiped out. Yet the down-to-earth 27-year-old understands that there are greater priorities in these difficult times for everyone across the world, but reassured her worried supporters back home of her safety and well-being in an uplifting message sent on social media, where she also encouraged her followers to listen to local authorities, practise good hygiene and stay home.

“I am fine, I am healthy and I am keeping fit and doing what I have been told to do, as its very important to follow the instructions of the authorities as they know best,” she said. “We all going to be alright. Let’s keep doing our best and protect the ones around us.”

Having lived in Italy for just eight months, Jane admitted that culture shock did get the better of her in the beginning, but is grateful for the support of her AC Milan teammates who helped her settle in and have continued to be by her side.

“My first days were a bit tricky because the surroundings are completely different to South Africa,” she revealed in a recent club interview. “I had to adjust to many things, including the transport system – even today I’m still struggling with that! But my teammates made it easy for me to adjust to life in Milan – they always make sure I am okay and also involve me in their activities, especially my housemates – we are one big happy family and we are there for one another. I had support from them which made it easier.”

With over 100 international caps to her name, Jane is an inspiration to many across South Africa: a former student-athlete turned professional, she continues to inspire and pave the way forward for aspiring female footballers in the country – and not just by example.

Two years ago the midfielder established the Refiloe Jane Foundation, as she looks to gain from her own childhood experiences to assist young children from the rural area where she grew up.

“The reason behind establishing the foundation was because I saw a need in my community where I come from, where a lot of kids lack opportunities in order to succeed in football, in studies and in life,” she said. “That became a reason for me to try and help them overcome these challenges that they face because I also faced them and was able to overcome them. We share this with the kids, so they can see that anything is possible, as long as you put your mind and heart into it. It doesn’t matter where you come from, or your background or how poor you are – as long as you have the will and the opportunity, then anything is possible.”

In December last year, Jane used the Christmas break to conduct a football workshop for less privileged youngsters in her home neighbourhood in South Africa, even inviting teammate, AC Milan captain and Italy international Valentina Giacinti to join.

“We try go out and identify kids from different areas in Johannesburg and Soweto where we are based and where I grew up,” Jane says of her foundation’s work. “In December 2019 we had about 40 kids that were randomly selected, and held life skills sessions and soccer clinics, where Valentina also came to share experiences with the kids.”

Despite the incredible impact she is already making through her charitable work, Jane has already set her sights even higher as she hopes to have an even greater impact on the next generation by collaborating with AC Milan’s official charity programme.

“With the Refiloe Jane Foundation, we are looking to have a partnership with the Milan Foundation – we know the projects and activities they do which aligns which what my foundation does, and hope in future that it can be one big thing, to spread out the projects to the rest of the world and change the lives of many kids,” she says.

There is no stopping this South African role model, who will no doubt patiently wait for the Coronavirus clouds to part before once again bringing joyous rays of sunshine to many, both on and off the football pitch.

Posted by Fabio De Dominicis (U-Media) on 08 May, 2020.
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