Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda interview: “It has not been easy for me to reach this stage”

Players with the star power of Zambian forward Barbra Banda are rarely afforded the chance to move in silence. News of the 23-year-old striker’s move to the Orlando Pride from Shanghai Shengli, first reported by CBS Sports, hardly existed in rumor form before it was firmed up by sources days ahead of the club’s announcement.

But now it’s official: the prolific goal-scorer whose career sparkles with historic consecutive Olympic game hat tricks and her contributions to Zambia’s push toward global prominence is packing up her talents and taking them to Orlando.

Banda spoke exclusively to The Athletic ahead of the club’s official announcement about transitioning to the NWSL from the Chinese Super League, playing with Brazilians in Orlando, ensuring African women’s football stays at the forefront of people’s minds, and converting Zambians into NWSL fans.

Though she’s still in her early 20s, Banda’s career has taken her from her hometown in the capital of Lusaka; to Logroño, Spain; to Shanghai, where she’ll close her current chapter with 41 goals across 52 career games.

After four years in China, she knew it was time to seek out new challenges.

“Honestly, it has not been easy for me to reach this stage, but I think the effort and the determination has really worked for me, and I always pray to God to achieve more,” Banda told The Athletic from Shanghai.

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Barbra Banda joins the NWSL from Shanghai Shengli in China. (Photo by Fred Lee, Getty Images)

China’s internet restrictions and the double-digit time difference from the U.S. made it challenging to follow the NWSL minute-by-minute, but Banda said she’s been using VPNs to study highlights. “It’s so amazing and awesome,” she said. “Very competitive, very physical, so it’s something that I’ll have to set my mind up for.”

Of the Pride specifically, Banda is most excited to play, unsurprisingly, with Marta, whom she grew up idolizing. But Banda’s also looking forward to reconnecting with another Brazilian player whose career has overlapped with hers.

“Looking at Rafaelle, she played here in China,” Banda said of the 32-year-old defender who competed with Changchun Dazhong for six years. “I’ve played against her before, so I think I’ll feel at home because I have a face that I already know. That’s very important for me to adapt.”

Banda’s contract also provides further evidence of the new direction taken by the club in recent years, marked first by the appointments of head coach Seb Hines and general manager Haley Carter, and bolstered by the signings of other young stars like Messiah Bright, a rookie of the year finalist last season before she left for Angel City. They’ve also shown a growing interest in nurturing international talent, particularly from Brazil, with players like Rafaelle, as well as midfielders Adriana and Luana.

“I’m thankful for the confidence the Wilf family has in our staff and our recommendation to invest heavily in a world-class talent like Barbra. Her stellar performance in the Olympics, World Cup, and Chinese Women’s Super League solidified her as a must-have target,” Carter said in a statement provided by the club.

On paper, Banda’s Pride deal is staggering: a transfer fee of $740,000, according to the club’s statement, along with a four-year contract worth $2.1 million, inclusive of bonuses. The numbers also near, interestingly enough, the world record transfer fee set by fellow Copper Queens striker, Racheal Kundananji, who recently signed with Bay FC for a world-record transfer fee of $785,000.



Bay FC sign Kundananji from Madrid CFF for world-record fee

“At the end of the day, we are putting Africa on the map,” Banda said of her and Kundananji’s lucrative deals.

Banda shied away from any details of the conversation she may have had with Kundananji ahead of their respective contract signings, but she maintained that “we are all proud of her, her teammates on the national team, and we’re pushing everyone to push harder for those kinds of deals and records.”

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Barbra Banda and Zambia teammate Racheal Kundananji both joined NWSL for expensive transfer fees. (Photo by Hannah Peters, Getty Images)

Banda is eager to get started on her own NWSL journey with the Pride, keeping in mind both the long-term commitment of her four-year contract with her determination to make an immediate impact on the field. That, she said, is what will shape the way she approaches her transition from the Chinese Super League to the NWSL.

“I always want to feel at home,” she said. “Teammates are my family, and the staff, so I have to be free with them. I have to be comfortable in whatever I’m doing, mingling with them, getting to know them well.”

And while many international players are known to migrate toward their diaspora communities when adjusting to a new town after a career move, Banda said that won’t be her main priority in Orlando.

“Definitely I might have to look for Zambians here and there, but that’s not really what I’m there for,” she said. “I’m there for a job, and I know why I’m there, so my concentration first is what I do mostly, that’s my aim, my target.”

On-field obligations aside, Banda is aware of her influence in Zambia, along with that of the rest of the Copper Queens. The team recently drew huge numbers of supporters to Ndola, nearly 200 miles north of the capital, for the second leg of their match against Ghana in their quest for Paris Olympic qualification. The game ended in a 3-3 draw, but the Copper Queens edged their opponents 4-3 on aggregate, with the deciding goal scored by — who else? — Banda. She knows that exposure, and the excitement bubbling around the team, will follow the players wherever they go.

“Most Zambians only paid attention (to international women’s football) when Kundananji was in Spain, or when I was in China,” she said. “It’s their time now to switch their minds to the USA and enjoy the game that side.”

(Top photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

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