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WOMEN’S SOCCER

Invigorated Banyana Banyana can take heart from their stirring World Cup performance

Invigorated Banyana Banyana can take heart from their stirring World Cup performance
Banyana players celebrate after knocking Italy out of the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup on 2 August in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo: Catherine Ivill / Getty Images)

It was a memorable campaign on the world stage, but South Africa’s women players will know they could have done even better.

Banyana Banyana return from their second successive Fifa Women’s World Cup with even more lessons learnt than when they debuted in 2019.

More importantly, the team returns with a new sense of self-belief after fighting displays at the Australian and New Zealand showpiece, particularly in the group stages in which they tussled with Sweden, Italy and Argentina.

Considering that Banyana went into the tournament as one of the lowest-ranked sides – in tandem with Zambia and Morocco – their achievements were commendable.

They will know, however, that they could have achieved even more.

Banyana were unfortunate to lose 2-1 at the death against Sweden in their opening match, but they should have easily blown away Argentina in the next match. Instead, they dropped points from a winning position to draw 2-2.

Against Italy, when it was win or bust, they demonstrated guile and desire to show that they are not the Queens of Africa by fluke.

Showing grit

Their victory over their European counterparts, who boast a fully professional league to South Africa’s semi-professional one, earned Banyana their very first World Cup win, a 3-2 victory.

This qualified them for the knockout round for the first time.

So shocked were Italy’s players at being bundled out by the reigning African champions that they turned on head coach Milena Bertolini, who had been in charge since 2017, immediately announcing her departure from the job..

The players also took a swipe at the Italian Football Federation for a perceived lack of support in the lead-up to and during the tournament. 

It could be the Azzurri underestimated South Africa and had already counted the draw or win they needed to bounce back from a 5-0 demolition at the hands of group favourites Sweden in their previous match.

Banyana Banyana had other ideas. The team’s resilience and resolve shone through as they vanquished the Italians to make history in New Zealand.

Although their fairytale run was eventually halted by an efficient Netherlands in a 2-0 loss, Banyana have learnt valuable lessons that will serve them well as they continue to fly the South African flag on the continental and global stage.

“We have shown what we learned [in 2019]. Yes, there are a lot of things we could have done better. But where we come from and where we play, our girls are not used to this intensity week in and week out,” Banyana coach Desiree Ellis said after her team’s defeat to the Dutch.

“We want to be remembered as a team that lit up the World Cup … as so-called underdogs that played good football, but could also mix it up with the best out there.

“We also want to be remembered for our singing and dancing. Because that’s who we are and that’s what unites us.”

Winning hearts

Banyana have sung and danced their way into people’s hearts, and have succeeded in showing many youngsters that, if you put your mind to it, nothing is out of reach.

Many locally based players still rely on allowances as opposed to earning salaries, and some also have to juggle full-time employment with the demands of playing the game they love.

“We need a professional league. For the players to come out and perform at this level against countries who play week in and week out against the top teams in the world, it shows we have talent,” said Ellis.

In spite of the odds being stacked against them, the team managed to break new ground by reaching the knockout stages. Banyana also scored five more goals than the single strike they managed in 2019. The six goals they conceded in the 2023 group stages are also two less than in 2019.

“We were in a group of teams that are higher ranked than us. But trust me, they had to work hard. We enjoyed ourselves as a team compared to 2019, where we scored one goal. This time we had goals and assists,” said star striker Thembi Kgatlana.

Banyana Banyana triumphant but know there's room for improvement

Thembi Kgatlana, left, celebrates with teammates after scoring her team’s third goal in their Group G match against Italy in Wellington, New Zealand, in August. (Photo: Lars Baron/Getty Images)

The hope is that, by the time the 2027 World Cup comes along, the team will be even better, as will the standing of women’s soccer in the country.

South Africa is bidding to host the next instalment of the ever-growing tournament. But it faces stiff competition from Brazil, a joint bid from the US and Mexico, as well as Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, which are also jointly bidding.

“We hosted a successful World Cup in 2010, which was a 32-nations tournament. This Women’s World Cup in 2027 is no different, as it will be a 32-nations event as well. In terms of the focus on infrastructure, we are in a strong position,” said South African Football Association (Safa) president Danny Jordaan recently.

On top of inspiring and adding more substance to Safa’s bid, Banyana’s memorable World Cup campaign has hopefully brought women’s soccer in the country to the forefront of people’s minds.

World Cup highlights

Best player

Thembi Kgatlana (27) is one of the most influential footballers South Africa has produced. She did not play much of a role as South Africa won the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations in 2022, after suffering an Achilles tendon injury during the group stage. The injury kept Kgatlana off the field for almost a year. At the World Cup she was back to her defence-terrorising best. She scored twice and assisted many times.

Best moment

This has to be when Kgatlana scored the winning goal that dumped Italy out of the World Cup and qualified Banyana for the knockout round. With their near misses in their two previous Group G matches, there was tension all around. Could they beat the Italians? When Kgatlana landed a knockout blow in added time, it sent South Africans into a frenzy.    

Best goal

The second of the three goals against Italy, when Kgatlana pulled off a Ronaldinho-style through ball for fellow forward Hildah Magaia, who rifled it home emphatically. All this under the pressure of botching a win against Argentina in their previous game.

Worst moment

You’re leading 2-0 and cruising. You have opportunities to add third and fourth goals, just for good measure. You fail to do this. Then your opponents fight back to equalise and almost beat you. This is what happened to Banyana as they threw away a comfortable 2-0 lead to draw two all with Argentina in their second World Cup game.  

Where to now?

The team will be boosted by their overall displays at the World Cup. There have been questions about whether three-time Africa women’s coach of the year Desiree Ellis, who has been at the helm since 2016, should carry on leading the team, or whether new ideas are needed. She will likely continue in her role, with expectations that Banyana can defend their African crown next year. DM

This article first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick newspaper DM168, which is available countrywide for R29.

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