OLYMPIC GAMES FOCUS
Banyana Banyana sharpen up for Olympic qualifiers with two friendlies against the US
Banyana Banyana are in America for a couple of friendlies against the four-time world champions, which will also serve as farewell matches for the retiring Megan Rapinoe.
South Africa’s senior women’s soccer side, more affectionately known as Banyana Banyana, is back in action for the first time since their historic Fifa World Cup campaign Down Under.
Desiree Ellis’s team, which reached the knockout round of the quadrennial soccer spectacle for the first time in just a second World Cup appearance, will clash with four-time world champions — the USA.
The pair of friendlies will be played in Cincinnati and Chicago, and take place on Friday, 22 September and Sunday, 24 September. They will also serve as farewell matches for the USA’s retiring superstar, Megan Rapinoe.
The outspoken midfielder is set to hang up her soccer boots when the domestic season in the USA concludes in November.
However, the two friendlies against Banyana will be her last for the national team — bringing down the curtain on a decorated individual career that saw her influence shoot through the roof on and off the field in the last two decades.
“She has been influential, not just as a player, but an activist for women’s soccer. She has been huge throughout the world and has done magnificently for the US,” Banyana coach Ellis said.
“A lot of previous and current players have looked up to her. Not just as a player, but as an activist. She has been huge for women’s football and we are blessed to be part of her send-off,” the three-time African coach of the year added.
The 38-year-old Rapinoe will end her international career with over 200 caps, just the 14th American to reach that milestone. She debuted for the USA in 2006. She then missed 2007 and 2008 due to injury, before restarting what would become an historic international career in 2009.
Rapinoe played in four senior World Cups, winning two gold medals in the process. She also has three Olympic medals, including one gold and two bronze.
She was part of the teams that represented the USA during the 2011 World Cup in Germany, then four years later in Canada, plus France in 2019. And then in their disappointing 2023 round of 16 elimination in Australia and New Zealand. It was the first time the Americans failed to reach the semifinals of the global showpiece.
“People may think that my career coming to an end would bring sadness, but when I think back on the past 30-plus years of playing this game, my overriding emotions are joy and gratitude,” said Rapinoe.
“It’s been an unbelievable ride. It will be special to have this one last opportunity to play for my country in front of our incredible fans. To get the chance to thank my teammates and everyone who has had an impact on me as a person and player over the years.”
For South Africa, the match will also serve as preparation for the start of their Olympic qualifying journey — which begins in October when they clash in a double-header against the Democratic Republic of Congo. The winner of the tie will advance to the third round of qualifying, which is set for February 2024.
“The Olympic qualifier is not too far from our minds. But we have two good games coming up to test ourselves and make sure that we put up a good performance,” shared coach Ellis after her team landed in the USA.
The coach hinted that they will be looking to ride the momentum that saw them make history at the World Cup, while also sharpening on some aspects that let them down during the tournament.
“Irrespective of the outcome, we also want to look at certain things that we’ve worked on. How we are defensively organised. How we transition [on the counterattack]. How we finish. Because in the World Cup we had a lot of chances. So, our finishing needs to improve. The results will be the outcome of all those things [coming together],” said the 60-year-old.
It will be a tough task for Banyana Banyana though. From the two clashes between the nations, they have lost twice. They have also conceded four times, while failing to breach the US defence.
Injuries to key players such as Bambanani Mbane, captain Refiloe Jane and striker Hildah Magaia will not help the South Africans in their pursuit of victory. DM
Banyana Banyana vs USA fixtures (SA time)
Friday, 22 September (1:30am)
Sunday, 24 September (11:30pm)