Banyana remain optimistic about World Cup preparations, despite recent harsh lessons

Banyana remain optimistic about World Cup preparations, despite recent harsh lessons
South Africa's Linda Motlhalo takes on Antonia Ronnycleide da Costa Silva of Brazil during a friendly match in Durban on 5 September, 2022. (Photo: Darren Stewart / Gallo Images)

Banyana Banyana have learnt some harsh lessons in their past three encounters since being crowned African champions. But they are hopeful these will leave them better prepared for the 2023 Fifa World Cup.

There can be no debate about whether Banyana Banyana have improved since their first and most recent appearance at a Fifa World Cup. It has been a drastic improvement.

It is why, after five previous attempts and falling at the final hurdle, the team was able to finally clinch the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon) back in July 2022.

In fact, even their first qualification to date for a World Cup, making the cut for the 2019 edition, was proof that they are making steady and upwards progress.

Harsh lessons

Nevertheless, recent friendly clashes against opposition in and around the top 10 of the global women’s Fifa rankings showed just how far the team still needs to rise. Especially if they are at least to make the teams of the quality they have recently faced sweat for victory, or defeat them.

Across all three of their recent friendly encounters, Desiree Ellis’s team made mistakes that were heavily punished. In both their encounters against Brazil, the players were directly culpable for mistakes that were punished by the quality opposition. The result was a 9-0 aggregate drubbing for the African champions.

In their recent 4-1 loss to 2023 World Cup co-hosts Australia, it was again individual mistakes that resulted in the Australians running away with the tie in the first 45 minutes as they raced into a 3-0 lead.

Banyana coach Desiree Ellis says they do feel the losses, ‘but we have to work through that’. (Photo: Paul Harding / Getty Images)

Though, to their credit, the South Africans put up a better fight in the second stanza. They restricted the Matildas to just a single goal while scoring one of their own in the dying embers of the match.  

“A lot of positives for us because I thought it was a better performance. We tested some new players that came and I thought they really raised their hands and that’s a big positive for us. And we scored a goal,” said coach Ellis.

Experimenting Ellis

In the team’s defence, a few regulars were absent for the Australia clash, including co-captains Refiloe Jane, Andile Dlamini and Janine van Wyk, as well as injured star striker Thembi Kgatlana.

Spain-based Noko Matlou and Lebogang Ramalepe, who plays in Belarus, also missed out. Wafcon-winning midfielder Nomvula Kgoale was dropped due to her being currently clubless.

Players such as University of Johannesburg duo Dineo Magagula (goalkeeper) and Sphumelele Shamase (forward) were roped in to stake their claim. As was JVW’s teenage midfielder Cimone Sauls.

“You have to take it into consideration that a lot of the players that went to the Wafcon were not around. The coach gave a lot of young players a chance to raise their hands and try to get a spot in the team. She always says no one’s spot in the team is guaranteed and this is a preparation for the World Cup,” said senior striker Jermaine Seoposenwe after the Australia clash. 

“We do feel the losses as players, but we have to work through that. You will never know who might get injured on the journey to the World Cup. So, all the players need to be ready when they do get a chance to compete against some of the best teams in the world,” she said. “We have to regroup, stay focused.” 

Trust the process

Of course, these fixtures are all preparation for Banyana’s second World Cup appearance and a consecutive qualification. As such, Ellis says it’s not time to press the panic button yet. Especially considering that they are ranked 54th in the world, while their past two opponents are in the top 15.

“This is a process. We’ve played three games in two windows. We’ll work on that continuously, to be better. The World Cup is not tomorrow,” said Ellis.

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“We’ve played Brazil, ranked No 9, and Australia, who are 12th. A lot of players have raised their hands. We feel it was a better performance against Australia. But we need to minimise the mistakes.”

During their World Cup debut in 2019, the South Africans failed to earn a single point and scored just one goal. That can be pinned on stage fright and inexperience as the players arrived on such a prestigious stage for the first time in their careers.   

On that occasion they were grouped with two-time world champions Germany, as well as Spain and China. Against the latter, they offered a decent account of themselves, but could not best the Asians. They ultimately lost 1-0 to add to the defeats against the Europeans.

Considering that serial African champions Nigeria have only ever made it to the knockout stages twice (despite playing in all the previous eight World Cup editions), Banyana’s prospects of making it out of whatever group they land up in when the draw is made on 22 October, are slim.

Nevertheless, Ellis’s charges will be keen to take home at least one win from the three opponents they will face in their designated group. Anything beyond that would be a massive achievement.

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Especially when considering that their male counterparts have failed to qualify for the global showpiece by their own powers since 2002. They played in 2010 by virtue of being the hosts.

Bafana Bafana have also only sporadically qualified for the continental Africa Cup of Nations over those 10 years.

Professional league

Following the loss to Australia, Ellis repeated her belief that if female players could rely primarily on football as a source of income, the team’s performances would be much better.   

“It [having a professional league] would definitely close the gap,” she said. “Having a professional league where players solely focus on football would really help. A lot of the players have full-time jobs, then they go to training. Some clubs train twice a week, some three times a week… So, yes, having a professional league will definitely raise the standards.”

Read in Daily Maverick: “Banyana Banyana victory – a test of South Africa’s gender parity

Ellis says that despite the harsh outcomes of their recent friendlies, where they conceded 13 goals and scored just one, she and her technical team have gathered important information in the lead-up to the July 2023 kick-off of the showpiece.

For their next fixtures the team will look to take on opponents closer to their competitive level, and implement the tough lessons learnt against Brazil and Australia.  

Namibia’s Juliana Blou contests for the ball against Lizza Mokoena of South Africa during their Cosafa Women’s Championship semifinal in Gqeberha on 9 September 2022. (Photo: Richard Huggard / Gallo Images)

“We will look at who we want to play next. Because we also have to play teams that are ranked closer to us, where we can actually see what we’ve learnt over these last three games. Then put that into practice. You also have to give a bit of confidence to players, because it’s rough losing,” said Ellis.

One thing is evident, South African and African football have a massive gap to close on their global counterparts. The 2023 World Cup is likely to be another learning curve for the African nations, including Africa’s reigning champions Banyana. DM


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