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Zambia looking forward to World Cup after Banda green light

January 10, 2023

After exclusion from the Africa Cup of Nations due to high testosterone levels, Zambia's Barbra Banda is free to compete at the World Cup. In the meantime, FIFA is set to review its gender eligibility regulations.

Olympia I Fußballspielerin Barbra Banda
Barbra Banda hit international fame when she score two hat tricks at the Tokyo Olympic GamesImage: Kohei Chibahara/AFP/Getty Images

FIFA has given Barbra Banda the green light to lead Zambia at their first ever Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand later this year, with world football's governing body still in the process of reviewing its gender eligibility regulations.

Banda was controversially dropped from Zambia's Women's Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON) campaign last year after failing a gender eligibility test due to high testosterone levels.

The affair prompted a row between the Zambian Football Association (ZAF) and the Confederation of African Football (CAF), with the ZAF claiming that CAF regulations are "a lot more stringent than Olympic regulations" and "put too much stress on testosterone levels," as reported by ESPN.

CAF, however, insisted it was only applying standards handed down by FIFA, who have now cleared Banda, 22, to captain Zambia at the upcoming World Cup while they review their gender regulations.

FIFA 'consultation process'

"FIFA is currently reviewing our gender eligibility regulations - we're in a consultation process right now," Sarai Bareman, FIFA's Chief Women's Football Officer, told BBC Sport Africa. "My team is obviously a big part of that consultation process and in the coming months, you'll see a new set of regulations come out of FIFA as many sports are also looking at their own regulations."

Results are expected before the start of the World Cup in July but, until then, Zambian football is happy that the country's star player will be able to compete.

"It is a huge boost for Zambia," Ponga Liwewe, former CEO of the Football Association of Zambia (FAZ), told DW. "Everybody who watched the Olympic Games recalls the goals that Banda scored. Despite going out in the first round, it put her on the map of women's football."

Liwewe was referring to Banda's two consecutive hattricks at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, the first woman to achieve such a feat in a 10-3 defeat to the Netherlands and a 4-4 draw with China. Her performances drew international attention and excitement grew ahead of WAFCON 2022 in Morocco, before she was withdrawn from the squad at the last minute based on her gender eligibility test results.

"It was a huge disappointment for her when she was ruled out of the WAFCON. And for her, it is a huge relief that she is back on the football front and playing again at the highest level. It is deep inside her heart, and she gives 100 percent every time she puts on the green jersey for Zambia."

Zambia finished third after defeating Nigeria in the third-place play-off. Despite missing out in Morocco, Banda bounced back with a bang at the regional COSAFA Women's Championship, scoring 10 goals in five matches to lead Zambia to the title against South Africa.

The rise of a trailblazer

Banda's football journey started in Lusaka, where she began playing with boys when she was six. After stints as a boxer, Banda would dodge her parents to play football, throwing her boots out of the window so they would not know her mission.

Football has taken her abroad, with a detour to Logrono in Spain and now China, where she currently plays for Shanghai Shengli. She finished her first season in China as the top scorer with 18 goals in 13 appearances. Her $300,000 signing by the Chinese put her among the biggest transfers for women footballers worldwide. 

And as Zambia qualified for its first ever senior World Cup in either gender, Banda's rise has created a ripple effect in her country, with more girls keen to play and explore their potential.

 COSAFA Women’s Championship 2022 Finale Sambia vs Südafrika
Barbra Banda scored 10 goals at the COSAFA Women's Championship including the winner in the final against South AfricaImage: Shaun Roy/Sports Inc/empics/picture alliance

"She is seen as a pioneer for the women's game, her moves that she made overseas have inspired so many young girls domestically who are now playing football which was not the case some years ago," said former FAZ CEO Liwewe. 

"It has opened the eyes of the players in the top leagues that if we play for the national team, we have chances of even bigger things by playing in overseas markets. These are some of the developments that are now recently being seen from the work that Barbra Banda did in opening the door for the other girls."

Zambia reaping investments in women's football  

Banda and her teammates' success has come from the FAZ's push to ensure women's football is properly run. The introduction of a new Women's Super Division league has ensured that female players can now compete nationwide after being restricted to regional competitions.

Big clubs like Zesco United, Red Arrows, Green Buffaloes and others have set up women's teams in the Super Division.  

The FAZ also made changes that saw the women's senior national team stop traveling by road and gave them the same conditions as the senior men's team. 

Ponga Liwewe
Ponga Liwewe (with hand on Barbra Banda no.11) celebrates with the Zambian women's team after qualifying for the Olympics in 2020: Image: Twitter.com/Ponga Liwewe

"We revised their allowances, put a lot of emphasis on the league, and restructured women's football. It was a matter of time before the results would begin to bear fruit. By the Olympic Games, we started to see a return on what Zambia was doing with women's football, and I think from then on, there's huge domestic support for the women's game," said Liwewe.

"Commercially, it is also beginning to show signs of resources coming in. So the future can only be bright for Zambian women's football." 

Liwewe also hopes they have a decent performance at the World Cup to set them up as a rising force in the global game. They have been drawn in Group C alongside Spain, Costa Rica and former champions Japan.

"Realistically speaking, we would be happy to see a Zambian presence in the quarter-final stage at this point of Zambian football development. They are talented and have the skills, but the World Cup will always be a difficult engagement for any team, especially an African team."

But with Banda back in the team, their chances have received a welcome boost.

"We are looking forward to welcoming her to Australia and New Zealand next year to participate," said FIFA's Bareman. But the consultation process regarding the organization's gender verification regulations continues.

Edited by Matt Ford.