With their new style of play, Banyana aim high in their sophomore World Cup
It’s been a tough time for South Africa’s women footballers in recent weeks after a battle with Safa over funding. But now they can focus on trying to make history.
South Africa reached their second Fifa Women’s World Cup by winning the 2022 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon) for the first time – having been felled in the final many times.
Considering the number of finals they had reached in the continental showpiece over the years, their victory at Wafcon was hardly a surprise. They arrived at that tournament as one of the favourites.
At the coming Fifa Women’s World Cup in New Zealand and Australia, they will be very much among the minnows. Against them are heavyweights such as four-time champions the US, as well as the likes of Germany, England, Brazil and Sweden.
Sweden is with Banyana Banyana, Italy and Argentina in a tough group for the African champions – despite being the only continental champions in that mini-league.
At their World Cup debut in 2019, the South Africans failed to earn a point and scored just one goal. That can be pinned on stage fright and inexperience, as the players were on the big stage for the first time.
In 2023, the team are dreaming of graduating from their group. But before they shoot for that, they have to register their first points – a more realistic target.
The manner of their African conquest might serve the team well. Banyana Banyana, used to running rings around some rivals and hogging the ball, learnt to play without the ball at last year’s finals.
Playing a new style
Head coach Desiree Ellis and her technical team were aware that ball possession would not be easy at the World Cup.
A style adaptation sometimes made it difficult viewing for those who were 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.
One of the vital cogs in the team, goalkeeper Andile Dlamini, says the World Cup will be a completely different ball game to Wafcon.
“When we played Wafcon, we were focusing on that task of winning it,” Dlamini said. “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 the cockiness [of being Africa champions].”
Playing mainly on the counterattack, the team will depend on the incisive passing of players such as Linda Motlhalo and Refiloe Jane in midfield. Centre back Bambanani Mbane also possesses the ability to ignite a quick counterattack.
That’s where the speed of the likes of Racing Louisville striker Thembi Kgatlana, Mexico-based Jermaine Seoposenwe, and Hildah Magaia and Noxolo Cesane will come into play.
If the South Africans are to spring a surprise or two, such players will have to be effective when the chances arise.
Desiree’s date with destiny
Ellis has done it all with Banyana Banyana. She is a founding member of South Africa’s national women’s soccer team, which was formally established in 1993.
She cut her eye teeth for the big role of head coach serving as assistant coach to Dutch football mentor Vera Pauw while the latter was in charge of Banyana Banyana between 2014 and 2016.
Ellis – crowned Africa’s Women’s Coach of the Year three times on the trot – led the team to a maiden World Cup participation in 2019. Down Under, she is targeting the making of more history with her trusted soldiers.
“[Morocco’s men’s side] was not one of the favourites to get out of their group at Qatar 2022. They went there with a plan and they stuck to it. We have a similar idea of what we want,” said Ellis of her team’s prospects in New Zealand and Australia.
South African women’s soccer has come a long way since Ellis and company first laced up their boots for the national team almost three decades ago.
There is now a semi-professional national women’s league, with games broadcast on national television, which was established in 2019. However, the country is still far behind the likes of Sweden.
Many still working women
“We still have a lot of players [who] go to work, then after work they have to come train or play. Sometimes they can’t travel with their team on the weekend because they work. Hopefully that will change in the not-so-distant future,” says Ellis.
Banyana’s first World Cup group opponents, the Swedes, have had a fully professional league since 2013.
Italy, too, has a fully professional league, as of 2022 – which is where South Africa’s skipper Jane has honed her skills over the past four years, first at AC Milan and now at Sassuolo.
“Playing in Italy makes it easier for me to share information with management. About 95% of players in the Italian team play at home, so, some are my teammates and some I’ve played against,” said Jane.
One player vital to the success of South Africa in the quadrennial football spectacle is fleet-footed forward Kgatlana, who is one of the most influential footballers South Africa has produced on and off the field.
“Thembi is a special player. You know what to expect from her. But sometimes you can’t stop it,” coach Ellis has previously said of her star forward.
Back to her scintillating best
The attacker did not play much of a role when South Africa won Wafcon for the first time. She suffered an Achilles tendon injury during the group stages of the continental tournament.
The injury kept her away from the field for almost a year. But now she is back to her scintillating best.
With goals as rare as rain in the desert for South Africa in France in 2019, Kgatlana and her fellow forwards might have to fight ferociously if South Africa is to stand any chance of exiting Group G.
Looking to learn a lot from senior players such as Kgatlana and Seoposenwe will be 20-year-old Wendy Shongwe.
The forward was running the 800m competitively as recently as 2017 – even going as far as claiming bronze in the national high school championships that year.
In 2021, she returned to football as a promise to her father, ditching the loneliness of track running.
“It was the team aspect of football that did it for me… It is a case of one for all and all for one,” Shongwe said.
A standoff with Safa
In the days preceding the team’s departure to New Zealand, where they will be based throughout the group phase, there was a standoff between them and the South African Football Association (Safa).
The dispute was resolved when the Motsepe Foundation stepped in to provide the association with the necessary funds to meet the demands of the players.
With their demands – primarily financial – sorted out, the team can focus on the task at hand: attempting to progress from the group stage for the first time in just their second Fifa World Cup appearance. DM
This article first appeared in Daily Maverick’s weekly sister publication, DM168, which is available countrywide for R29.