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World Cup a blank canvas for Banyana to paint history

World Cup a blank canvas for Banyana to paint history
Refiloe Jane of South Africa in action against Morocco during the 2022 Womens Africa Cup of Nations Final in July 2022 (Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix)

SA’s female footballers face a tough campaign. But the tournament does offer them a chance to make some special memories. 

Banyana Banyana’s build-up to the ninth edition of the Fifa Women’s World Cup has been blighted by controversy and off-field issues. However, now attention can shift to what matters most – what the team can do on the pitch.

The dust has temporarily settled and conversation can revolve around the excitement of fans getting the opportunity to see attackers Jermaine Seoposenwe and Thembi Kgatlana link up again.

The pair’s reunion was cut short in the early stages of the 2022 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon), when the latter suffered a serious injury that kept her out of action for almost a year. In the quadrennial global spectacle, they have a chance to rekindle their partnership as a deadly attacking pair for Banyana.  

Focus can shift to the excitement of witnessing the silky skills of playmaker Linda Motlhalo as she attempts to run the show against tough opponents in Group G: Sweden, Argentina and Italy.

Discussions can centre on which players will make the starting lineup. With so much depth in the 23-player squad, Desiree Ellis will have a great headache when it comes to picking her preferred 11.

Banyana Banyana World Cup squad

Banyana Banyana head coach Desiree Ellis ahead of the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup. (Photo: Alexsandar Djorovic/BackpagePix)

Ellis in Wonderland

Ellis has done it all with the team.

A founding member of Banyana, which was established in 1993, the 60-year-old cut her teeth as an international coach by serving as assistant to Dutch mentor Vera Pauw between 2014 and 2016.

Ellis, crowned Africa’s women’s coach of the year three times, led the team to their maiden World Cup participation in 2019. Now she has guided them to a second.

In addition, she helped the team to finally clinch a maiden Wafcon title – after years of failed attempts. This earned her the national Order of Ikhamanga, an honour for excellence in sports, the arts, culture, literature, music and journalism.

The Salt River-born tactician is relishing the opportunity to fly the South African flag on the global stage once more – while keeping in mind that the chance of South Africa winning the cup is almost zero.

“As far as individual honours go, there are few to match coaching your team at a World Cup. I am humbled and deeply grateful to be given the opportunity to help drive South Africa’s ambitions, and also privileged to work with a team that brings so much joy and excitement to people’s lives,” Ellis said.

“We travel to our second successive World Cup with a blend of young and experienced players; a blend of styles and a blend of cultures that makes a diverse and exciting team determined to justify their status as champions of Africa,” the coach continued.

Ellis said, even though it would be an uphill battle to qualify for the knockout rounds, or even register their first points at the tournament, they will leave everything on the field of play.

A great adventure awaits

“We are eager and positive – even in a tough group where Sweden, Italy and Argentina will all be looking to make bold statements. I’m happy to predict that none of these fixtures will leave our opposition wondering about South Africa’s flair or aptitude for hard work,” she stated.

“A great adventure awaits and we look forward to representing South Africa with ho­nour and pride.”

Goals will be the key to Banyana Banyana’s ambitions to make it out of their group. They only managed one goal in their debut appearance four years ago.

Jermaine Seoposenwe in action during the 2022 Womens Africa Cup of Nations Final against Morocco. (Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix)

Along with Seoposenwe and Kgatlana, Hildah Magaia should be another source of goals. The forward etched her name in history when she netted a match-winning brace in last year’s Wafcon final against Morocco.

The 28-year-old – who wears the colours of Sejong Sportstoto in South Korea at club level – eyes the World Cup as a blank canvas on which to create a Banyana legacy.

“There are a lot of mixed emotions. I’m kind of nervous. But, at the same time, I’m looking forward to the tournament, looking forward to the first game and seeing how it feels to play on this big stage,” Magaia said.

“The motivation I take from Wafcon is just the continuation of what we did [there] – and what I did – but just upping the intensity or the pace … This is a higher stage and it needs one to up their game and be ready for anything,” the attacker added.

Underdogs in their group

Magaia said it was important for South Africa to navigate the World Cup with plenty of confidence and self-belief – in spite of clearly being the underdogs in their group and regardless of their status as reigning African champions.

“We should go there with a positive mind, positive energy, obviously. So that we cannot really take our spirit down and be threatened by [our opponents because they are ranked higher than us]. That’s what we need to do, so that we can gain confidence going into the games and not be intimidated.”

South Africa will draw some inspiration from co-hosts New Zealand. They went into the World Cup with 15 World Cup matches under their belts, but without a single win and 12 defeats across those fixtures.

Spurred on by a record crowd for a soccer match in the country’s history, the Football Ferns downed former world champions Norway 1–0.

Forward Hannah Wilkinson – a veteran of more than 100 caps – was the hero for her country as she scored the first of the many goals that would come at the tournament –  sending 40,000-plus spectators into a frenzy at the sound of the final whistle.

Media coverage of the opening match was somewhat overshadowed by a gunman who randomly opened fire on civilians, killing two and wounding a few more before being “neutralised”.

The 24-year-old man tore through a construction site with a pump-action shotgun in the frenzied attack – just hours before the co-hosts kicked off against the Norwegians at Eden Park in Auckland.  

“Fifa extends its deepest condolences to the families and friends of the victims who lost their lives. Our thoughts and prayers remain with those who have been injured in this tragic incident,” said the governing body of world soccer in reaction to the tragedy.

The Football Ferns’ victory will not bring back those who lost their lives. However, it might go some way towards helping to unite a country in shock. DM

This article first appeared in Daily Maverick’s weekly sister publication, DM168, which is available countrywide for R29.

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