WOMEN’S WORLD CUP 2023
Banyana Banyana striving to get battle-ready for the global big one
The 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup is less than 100 days away. The South Africans are hoping to do better than they did in 2019.
During their Fifa Women’s World Cup debut in 2019, the South Africans failed to earn a single point and scored just one goal. That can be partly pinned on stage fright and inexperience, as all the players arrived on the prestigious stage for the first time in their careers.
On that occasion, Banyana Banyana were grouped with two-time world champions Germany, as well as Spain and China. Against the last, they gave a decent account of themselves, but could not best the Asians and ultimately lost 1-0 – after defeats to the Europeans.
Considering that serial African champions Nigeria have only ever made it to the World Cup knockout stages twice (despite playing in all previous eight World Cup editions), Banyana’s prospects of making it out of their tough group this year are slim. Yet the team says this is their primary target for the tournament.
The South Africans are in Group G and will come up against Sweden, ranked third in the world. Italy and Argentina (both in the top 30; Banyana are 54th) are the other group rivals. Claiming points will not be a breeze.
Nevertheless, coach Desiree Ellis’s charges are determined to take home at least one win from the three games. Anything beyond that would be a massive achievement in the Australia/New Zealand showpiece.
Second time around
Some things set the current Banyana Banyana team apart from the one that went to France in 2019.
The first and most important is that the team heads to their second World Cup as African champions, after clinching a maiden continental crown in 2022.
According to Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies goalkeeper Andile Dlamini – who is Banyana Banyana co-captain alongside Italy-based Refiloe Jane – winning the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon) was amazing. However, that is in the past.
“When we played the Africa Cup of Nations, we were focusing on that task of winning it,” Dlamini told Daily Maverick. “Which we succeeded in doing. Now it’s a different task. We have to put Wafcon aside and understand it’s 11 people versus another 11. You can’t go there with cockiness.”
How they conquered Africa might serve the team well, though, even if the title of African champions does not. South Africa, so used to running rings around some fellow African nations and hogging the ball, learnt to play without the ball at last year’s finals.
This style adaptation sometimes made it difficult viewing for those used to watching the team glide around with ball at feet. But they ground out the necessary results – all the way to claiming Wafcon gold.
Ellis and her technical team are aware that possession of the ball will be difficult against opponents at the World Cup, which commences on 20 July.
As a result, an evolution in Banyana’s style of playing was called for.
The coaching staff used Wafcon to work on this, as well as focusing more on the defending side of the game – which is generally not a priority if a team’s style is possession-based.
Glimpses of more cohesive defending were visible during a 3-2 defeat to Serbia, in Banyana’s most recent friendly encounter, which was part of the preparations for the World Cup. Despite the improvements, the team’s defending, particularly from dead ball situations, still needs some work.
“It was not the result we wanted. We need to go back and have a look at how we can defend the set-pieces better,” said Ellis after the loss to Serbia.
“I felt that we were solid defensively in open play and that is one thing that we have been working on.”
Teams that play without the ball depend on counterattacking to hurt their opponents with goals, and this is another area that Banyana Banyana must improve on if they are to avoid déjà vu at the World Cup.
“We could have been better in transition [against Serbia]. There were some moments [when] we could have played the ball earlier and we could have been in on goal,” said the Banyana coach.
“The team’s persistent fighting spirit was commendable. That is exactly what we want to see as we prepare for the upcoming World Cup.
“The team mirrored our mantra, ‘Live the Impossible’, for the duration of the match as they worked hard on the field of play to turn things around.”
In the lead-up to the July tournament, the South African Football Association has worked to ensure that Banyana Banyana face some of the best teams in the world.
They came up against South American champions Brazil and against World Cup co-hosts Australia after winning Wafcon. And they were brought down to earth with a thud in those games.
A drubbing from Brazil
In two encounters with Brazil, players made mistakes that were punished by the quality opposition. The result was a 9-0 aggregate drubbing.
In the 4-1 loss to Australia, it was again individual mistakes that resulted in defeat.
Most recently – during an invitational tournament that was for a time shrouded in uncertainty because of the devastating earthquake that struck host nation Turkey – Banyana managed to avoid defeat in the two matches they played.
They beat Uzbekistan 3-0 and drew 1-1 with eventual runners-up Slovenia. Both teams are ranked in the top 50.
Heading into the World Cup, Banyana’s technical team has been bolstered – in the hope that more hands will make the broth taste better, as opposed to spoiling it.
Shilene Booysen, recently head coach of South Sudan, has been roped in as technical adviser.
Former Banyana captain Simphiwe Dludlu has been installed as Ellis’s second assistant, alongside Thinasonke Mbuli.
“It’s always good to have more hands on board. Shilene, because of her analysis background, will help us a lot tactically,” explained Ellis.
“Instead of me getting all our opponents’ information, she is busy doing that with our analyst.
“So, having more hands on deck and a little bit more input will be helpful. Everyone looks at the game a little differently.” DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.