Tough decisions for Desiree Ellis as she shapes Banyana World Cup squad
Healthy competition in any ecosystem can bode well for the collective. The Banyana Banyana mentor is hopeful that will be the case for her charges as they head for the Fifa Women’s World Cup.
More than a week after announcing her group of fighters for the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup showdown in Australia and New Zealand, Banyana Banyana coach Desiree Ellis shed some light on the thinking in relation to picking her final squad.
Four players who were part of Banyana’s Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon) winning campaign did not make the final 23 for the New Zealand and Australia spectacle, which kicks off on 20 July.
These unlucky players include young striker Nthabiseng Majiya, third-choice goalkeeper Regirl Ngobeni and University of Western Cape midfielder Amogelang Motau. The three have been named as standby players in case of injury in the selected group before the tournament.
Meanwhile, Sundowns midfield pivot Thalea Smidt – who was also part of that historic Wafcon campaign (though mostly as an impact player) – was left out altogether after initially being roped into the preliminary squad.
Ellis has always expressed her appreciation for utility players. The 60-year-old tactician hinted that this was once again a key component when choosing her final fighters.
“I just wanted to make sure that I got the mix right. Youth and experience. Combinations. Versatility. So, I needed to look at everything. All the formations we play, where the players can play [in those formations], what they can add. I needed to look at all of that,” Ellis told journalists at a press conference in Joburg on 28 June.
“Unfortunately, I had the difficult task of telling someone they’re not going [to the World Cup].
“That for me was the most difficult part. Because, whether we like it or not, there are emotions involved. Not just for myself but for the individual,” the Banyana coach said.
Of course, other than the disappointment of missing out on the quadrennial tournament, the players who were cut from the initial 36-player preliminary will also miss out on a massive payday.
Every player at this year’s women’s soccer spectacle will be guaranteed at least $30,000 (roughly R560,000).
This is double the average annual salary of women soccer players worldwide.
“I encouraged them to keep working and make sure that, when we announce again, they’re not sitting in the same seat [of disappointment]. Our psychologist has also been in contact [with the affected players] and will stay in regular contact with them just to check up on them and make sure that they’re okay,” Ellis added.
A widening pool
The flipside of the coach having had to make this tough decision is the expansion in quality options.
A South African national women’s league was formed in 2019. Despite administrative hitches in its maiden season, the league has been invaluable and has increased the pool of the players available to Ellis and her technical team.
It has also increased the quality and competitiveness within the national team, something that can only bode well for the side and its ambitions, as well as for the players themselves. It means there is no room for complacency from anyone.
“It’s becoming more difficult. In all positions, players are getting better, the league is getting better.
“It’s not where we want to be [yet]. But it is still getting better. Players have matured over the last four years.
“It being a World Cup year, I always knew it was going to be difficult [to choose players]. It became more difficult than I thought it would be.
“I saw the nervousness of experienced players. Because they knew how difficult it was to select [the final squad]. They knew how the players raised their hands,” Ellis told journalists.
Heading into an extremely tough World Cup group, the Banyana Banyana coach is hoping to maintain the spirit of competitiveness that prevailed before she selected her final squad for the quadrennial showpiece.
They will need to. South Africa is in Group G – alongside one of the leaders in women’s soccer, Sweden. Also in the group are tough opponents in Italy and Argentina.
It will be a difficult battle to earn their first World Cup points, in just their second appearance at the tournament.
Opportunity for local players
The World Cup will also be an opportunity for the players who are based locally to showcase their skills on the biggest stage.
Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Italy-based midfielder and Banyana skipper Refiloe Jane, Glasgow City midfield maestro Linda Motlhalo, plus forwards Thembi Kgatlana and Jermaine Seoposenwe will undoubtedly inspire the local cohort.
This is because, as much as the Hollywoodbets Super League is ever-improving, the opportunity to play internationally will always have more allure, especially when the domestic league remains semi-professional and some players still have to juggle full-time jobs with playing soccer.
“Things are changing, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
“The next step is to fully professionalise the game. That’s very important,” Ellis has previously told Daily Maverick.
Banyana Banyana will face neighbours Botswana in a friendly international to be played at Tsakane Stadium on the East Rand on 2 July.
In a final friendly match before the World Cup, they will tackle fellow participants Costa Rica, a week before they play their opening match against Sweden. DM
This story first appeared in Daily Maverick’s sister publication DM168, which is available countrywide for R29.