Racheal Kundananji: Zambia forward’s path to breaking Records

Racheal Kundananji was playing on the sparse pitches of Zambia’s Copperbelt Province six years ago – but now the 23-year-old is the world’s most expensive female footballer in history.

It has been a remarkable ascent for the forward, an explosive talent who convinced Bay FC of the American National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) to part with $860,000 in order to prise her away from Madrid CFF.

That fee eclipses the benchmark set by Keira Walsh’s £400,000 switch from Manchester City to Barcelona in 2022.

Significantly, Kundananji is the first African player, male or female, to break a world transfer record.

She is moving to the United States after a prolific 18-month spell in Madrid in which she scored 33 Liga F goals in 43 games.

The Zambia international is still coming to terms with the enormity of her transfer fee but knows the first place she can find support is from her homeland.

“People in Zambia will be surprised but they will be so happy,” Kundananji told BBC Sport Africa.

“A lot of people have encouraged me to work hard and some even said ‘maybe one day you’ll break some records’.

“This is the first one and I know there are more coming. I will do my level best and fight every time I play, like I always do.

“I want to give the [Bay FC] fans what they want – to enjoy the games, to enjoy seeing me playing and scoring.”

Keeping secrets

Kundananji scored eight goals in 14 Liga F appearances for Madrid CFF this season

The most surprised person in Zambia may well be Kundananji’s mother, who she decided to keep in the dark ahead of the big announcement.

“I just told her that I signed a new contract and that there was something big coming, but I didn’t tell her about becoming the most expensive player,” Kundananji said with a smile.

“I wanted that to be a surprise. My mum is my biggest influence.

“I learned a lot from her – to work hard and never give up on anything. If you’re good at something, then you need to follow your dreams.”

While Kundananji’s mum worked a physically demanding job in one of Zambia’s myriad copper mines, Bay FC’s new recruit would slope out to play football with local boys.

She and her friends created makeshift balls out of plastic and cotton from flour sacks.

“When I was growing up, I kept it a secret from my family that I was playing football,” Kundananji recalled. “They would think I was going to my friend’s place.”

When her family eventually found out, they assumed football was just a pastime that would eventually fall by the wayside. Kundananji says this sort of response is still heard by girls across Zambia.

“What I really want to say to girls is that they just need to follow their dreams and do what they love doing. Many of our parents will force us to do what we don’t love but then we end up with regrets,” she added.

“Choose your own path and work hard; then, as time goes on, your parents will support you.”

Teaming up with Oshoala

Kundananji is set to play alongside Nigeria star Asisat Oshoala, the six-time African Women’s Footballer of the Year, at Bay FC

One of Kundananji’s new team-mates is someone who has been an example to her for several years.

In a strike partnership that will be the envy of clubs across the NWSL and wider world, the Zambian will join Nigeria striker Asisat Oshoala in leading Bay FC’s line.

Oshoala, six times Africa’s player of the year, has been newly acquired from Barcelona.

“She’s been a great African player for a long time. A lot of us in Africa try to play like her,” Kundananji said, beaming.

Kundananji is endearingly modest and needs some convincing that she is now also a role model to young Africans.

The talented forward grew up as a Chelsea fan – watching Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard in the Premier League, dreaming that one day she might emulate them.

“Every time I watched Chelsea I would see the camera following the individual players. I thought, ‘I just want to play football in front of a camera’,” she said.

“I thought about my face coming up on TV and my mum thinking, ‘Oh that’s my child’.”

Having scored in the Uefa Women’s Champions League and Women’s World Cup, and faced the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid in Liga F, Kundananji is certainly no stranger to the TV cameras.

Watching closely as her prowess and profile have grown has been Chris Atkins, her agent since 2018.

He was first alerted to her ability after watching some grainy YouTube footage of the then talented teenager scoring a hat-trick against Ghana in a friendly ahead of the 2018 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations.

“Racheal is dedicated, humble and obviously an unbelievable goalscorer,” Atkins said.

“She always had raw speed but has improved so much in terms of her finishing, her tactical awareness and her physicality in the past few years.

“It is great to see someone who started with nothing has managed to reach the level she has.”

From Kazakhstan to the USA

Kundananji made her Zambia debut in 2018, and scored three goals at that year’s Women’s Africa Cup of Nations

Kundananji’s success has required a few career steps.

The first significant one was in 2019 with a transfer from Zambia’s Indeni Roses to BIIK Kazygurt, the biggest women’s club in Kazakhstan.

It was a dramatic shift for the then 18-year-old, who was delighted to be earning a guaranteed $1,500 per month – with free accommodation included.

She secured a move to Liga F side Eibar in 2021 before her abilities were spotted by Madrid CFF, and it is in the Spanish capital that Kundananji has really flourished.

Fellow Zambia forward Prisca Chilufya is confident her team-mate can handle the pressure that will inevitably accompany her record price tag.

“She’s very determined and very hard-working. That’s why she has been dominating in every league she has played in,” Chilufya told BBC Sport Africa.

“She is someone you want on your team because she has a good heart and she also makes life easy on the pitch.”

Chilufya is hopeful that Kundananji’s high-profile move to the USA will help to further the growth of women’s football in their homeland.

“I think this news will be shocking to many because Zambia has never had any expensive players and women’s football is still developing in the country,” Chilufya said.

“It’s amazing to know that Zambia has the most expensive player in the world. Players like Racheal have played a big role in inspiring people.”

Although Kundananji has made history with her move, Atkins is expecting the world transfer record to tumble regularly in the coming years.

“We’ve taken a big leap up now in the record, but that could easily be broken in the next six to 12 months,” Atkins said.

“The NWSL is now reacting after perhaps realising it had slipped down the pecking order in terms of women’s leagues.”

It is a huge move for Kundananji, who is swapping the 3,500-seater Estadio Fernando Torres in Madrid for the 18,000-capacity PayPal Park in San Jose.

She admitted she will miss life in Spain but is relishing the prospect of proving herself in the NWSL.

“My team-mates in Madrid have been my family and it was so difficult for me to make this decision,” Kundananji said.

“I won’t put myself under pressure. My goal is to continue where I ended in Madrid and to achieve bigger things.

“I’ll never give up because if I give up, I’ll disappoint the young girls who message me asking advice about how they can get the best out of themselves.”

Credit: BBC Sport.

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