How Racheal Kundananji became the most expensive player in women's football history

Bay FC have broken the world transfer record for Racheal Kundananji - this is her story.
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When Racheal Kundananji was a young girl, she had to play football in secret. Now, at 23, she is the most expensive player in the history of the women’s game following a record-shattering move to American side Bay FC. This is the story of a meteoric rise which has taken her from Zambia to Kazakhstan, Spain and finally the United States and the record books.

Born in 2000, Kundananji kept her love of the sport hidden from her family. She would tell her parents that she was going to visit friends, but would instead head to the local pitches to play with the boys using improvised balls made from plastic and sacking. Her parents found out eventually, of course, as they always do, and her mother – who worked in one of Zambia’s numerous copper mines – was broadly supportive, but always assumed that football was just a child's hobby, one that would be forgotten when she grew up. Her mother was wrong, not that Kundananji knew it right away.

“I loved football growing up - sometimes, I would skip school just to play football,” she told ESPN. “But for me, it wasn't a career. It was just fun because I loved football… I didn't know that there were women's teams and I didn't follow women's football.”

By the time she was 18, Kundananji had become an international footballer and just the second Zambian woman to sign a professional contract, moving from local side Indeni Roses to perennial Kazakhstani league champions BIIK Kazygurt. She was paid the equivalent of just over £14,000 per year – a far cry from the salary she will earn at her new club, Bay FC, who will pay her a salary and benefits totalling around £2m on a contract which runs until 2027.

Having impressed in Kazakhstan, she earned a move to Eibar in Spain’s La Liga F – where she was promptly relegated as her side finished second bottom despite her eight goals. Still, Madrid CFF (not to be confused with Real Madrid’s women’s team) saw her potential and offered her a second crack at the Spanish top flight. It was in Madrid that she harnessed her potential and embarked on a devastating run of goal-scoring form.

She had already impressed with the Zambian national side, the Copper Queens. She scored in the 2018 African Women’s Cup of Nations in Ghana and in the Tokyo Olympics, and while it would be fair to say she lived slightly in the shadow of the prolific Barbra Banda – who rose to stardom when she became the first woman to score back-to-back hat-tricks at the Olympics in 2021 - Kundananji was a known quantity within the game. She simply hadn't taken every step on the path to stardom.

Not that that path was entirely smooth. In 2022, she was withdrawn suddenly from the Zambian AWCON squad along with Banda and two other players because the Zambian FA believed that their testosterone levels would exceed CAF’s hormone testing limits. The players refused hormone suppression treatment at the time – FIFA and the Olympics have less stringent rules on hormone levels - and their cause was taken up by Human Rights Watch, but they ultimately missed the tournament in Morocco. In spite of that obstacle, her career was only moving in one direction, and it was in the 2022/23 season with Madrid that she came into her own.

Kundananji had always had excellent off the ball movement and an lightning turn of pace – “dynamic attacking qualities and an incredible physical profile” as her new general manager at Bay FC phrased it - but she took a step up with her technique and, especially, her composure in front of goal. A series of ice-cold left-footed finishes saw her rack up 25 goals in her first season, which made her the second top scorer in La Liga F behind only Levante’s Alba Redondo. With the national side, she scored in the 2023 World Cup, a hat-trick against Morocco and a crucial goal in a shocking 3-2 win over Germany. She went from a supporting act to superstar status in spectacular style and at remarkable speed.

Her two goals against Barcelona in a 2-1 win in April 2023 sum up what she does best as a centre-forward. Both goals saw her use her speed to exploit holes in the Barça backline, racing onto direct passes and leaving defenders for dead. For the first, goalkeeper Sandra Paños completely failed to judge how quickly Kundananji could reach the ball and left herself stranded, as the striker rounded her and slotted home into an empty net. For the second, she simply side-footed the ball into the tiniest of gaps at the near post as though it was the easiest thing imaginable. Barcelona, the best team in Spanish women’s football, were unable to cope with Kundananji that day – and suffered the only defeat they’ve endured in the league in the last three years.

Kundananji had become hot property – enter Bay FC, a brand new expansion team for the American National Women’s Soccer League, who will play their first matches in March when the new season gets underway. Based in San Jose, the most populous of the three cities that make up California’s Bay Area along with San Francisco and Oakland, they are backed by investment group Sixth Street Capital and co-founded with former USA national team players Aly Wagner, Brandi Chastain, Leslie Osborne and Danielle Slaton.

Officially founded in April 2023, their published mission statement is to “change the face of women’s soccer as we know it,” and while it can be hard to divorce marketing speak from the cynical reality of football, they have certainly started in an ambitious and free-spending manner. Before the process of building their roster began, secured the largest sponsorship deal in the history of the American women’s game, a $13m (£10.3m) arrangement with Sutter Health, and they have not been shy of spending their cash.

They had already splashed out for several big-name players before they struck the deal for Kundananji, including Barcelona and Nigeria striker Asisat Oshoala and Arsenal’s 32-year-old Scottish defender Jen Beattie – but the real statement was made when they broke the world transfer record, bringing Kundananji in for $785,000 (£622,000) with a further $75,000 (£59,000) in add-ons.

Kundananji had interest from clubs in England, France and Spain, but it was Bay FC that won out as they broke a record recently set by Chelsea when they signed Maya Ramírez for a fee rising to just under £430,000. The record wasn’t simply broken, but obliterated, and Kundananji became the first African player ever to hold a men’s or women’s transfer record.

“I just want to have a new experience and it's been my dream to do it in the United States of America,” she said in her ESPN interview. "I just fell in love with the team, and I would love to achieve more goals with Bay FC."

It will be interesting to find out how Bay FC use her. She prefers to play as a central striker and it was in that role that she scored so many goals for Madrid – but she typically plays wide left for Zambia with Banda through the middle, and the presence of Oshoala, who scored 85 goals in 101 league games for Barcelona and cost a reported $150,000 (£119,000), may see her asked to play on the wings again. She has the technique and creative ability to play as a wide forward, but it would be a pity if she wasn’t well placed to blow defenders away through the middle as she did so often in Spain.

Kundananji seems sanguine about her role: “I can play any position… For the national team, we have so many strikers and so few wingers who are strong, so that is why I play on the wing -- but I'm a striker… As long as I'm with the team, no problem. I can play any position."

It will also be interesting to see handles the pressure of relatively sudden stardom and the weight of becoming the world’s most expensive player – not that her agent, Chris Atkins, is worried, judging by a separate interview he gave to ESPN.

"She's not a particularly outgoing person, but she's a very confident individual, so she, I think, was initially a little embarrassed by it as well, but obviously delighted that someone had put that kind of value on her. She's not going to be a player who is fazed by that fee from my knowledge of her. She'll take it in her stride."

And given that she has navigated a long and winding path to reach this point in her career – from secretly playing with boys with improvised footballs through four countries to becoming the priciest player in the history of the women’s game – it is hard not to back her to succeed yet again.

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