When South Africa's historic run at the Women's World Cup finally comes to an end, the first thing Thembi Kgatlana will do back home is visit three graves.

Kgatlana scored a 92nd-minute winner over Italy to give South Africa their first World Cup victory and a place in the last 16 against the Netherlands on Sunday in Sydney.

But it was what the skipper said afterwards that made even more headlines, revealing that three family members had died in as many weeks.

"I could have gone home but I chose to stay with the girls, because that is how much it means," she said.

The 27-year-old forward plays for Racing Louisville in the United States but whenever back in South Africa she was virtually inseparable from her aunt Mamogolo.

The 62-year-old died just before the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

"Mamogolo put 200 rand ($11) aside so they could lunch together when Thembi returned from the World Cup," Kgatlana's mother told the Sowetan newspaper.

"That is what hurts Thembi most -- she will never get to enjoy a meal with her beloved aunt," said Koko Kgatlana.

"Mamogolo virtually raised her. They had an incredible bond. She was always there for Thembi and they did everything together."

South Africa's star player is also mourning the recent loss of two other aunts.

One was 62 and the other 100, and it took all the persuasive powers of her parents to prevent Kgatlana abandoning the World Cup and returning home.

"I told Thembi to be strong. When she comes back we will take her to the graves so that she can say goodbye," said her father Matlhomola.

- 'Brutal injury' -

Kgatlana also almost saw her World Cup dreams shattered by injury, having suffered a potentially career-ending torn Achilles tendon a year ago.

She sustained the injury at the Africa Women's Cup of Nations -- which South Africa went on to win for the first time -- and was out for 10 months.

"I have come back from a very, very brutal injury," the attacker, who has also played in China, Portugal and Spain, said after the Italy win.

Kgatlana was born in a township 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Johannesburg.

Her mother, a former sprinter, wanted Kgatlana to play netball.

But when she put that to a young Kgatlana at the time, Koko Kgatlana recalls her replying: "Mama, football is going to be my talent."

Kgatlana quickly made her mark as a footballer, playing in under-17 club competitions at 13 and in under-20 tournaments one year later.

It will be the early hours Sunday in South Africa when the team play, but football fans back home will abandon the warmth of their beds and brave the winter cold to watch.

The Netherlands, runners-up to the USA at the last World Cup, are hot favourites.

But Banyana Banyana (The Girls) -- labelled "traitors" by a South African men's football official after a pay dispute -- and Kgatlana never know when to quit.