Sport

WAITING GAMES

Falling short of Olympic qualification a huge setback for Banyana Banyana

Falling short of Olympic qualification a huge setback for Banyana Banyana
Linda Motlhalo of South Africa during their clash against Nigeria at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on 9 April 2024. (Photo: Sydney Seshibedi / Gallo Images)

After losing 1-0 to Nigeria on aggregate in the final round of Olympic qualifying, Banyana Banyana will miss their second Games in a row.

South Africa’s senior women’s soccer side has been on an upward trajectory over the past few years.

In this time Banyana Banyana won their first and only Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon) title, in 2022, and complemented this overdue achievement by becoming the first senior South African soccer side to qualify for the knockouts of a Fifa World Cup.  

The players and technical team had hoped to add the title of Olympian to their impressive CVs. They failed in this endeavour after old foes Nigeria edged Banyana Banyana 1-0 on aggregate over two legs of cagey football from two teams that have tons of respect for each other.

Try as they might, South Africa just could not find a way past the Super Falcons. Their normally troublesome forwards, such as Thembi Kgatlana and Jermaine Seoposenwe, were comfortably kept away from seriously threatening the Nigerian goalmouth, over both legs.

“We tried everything that we could. Unfortunately, that goal would not come,” coach Desiree Ellis reflected after the game.

“We played much better than we did in the first leg. It’s just unfortunate that we could not get the much-needed goals,” South Africa’s skipper Refiloe Jane said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Nigeria trip up Banyana Banyana to reach Olympics for the first time since 2008

“We still struggle to score goals. It’s something that we need to work on, [being effective in] the final third,” the Italy-based midfielder reflected.  

“Other than that, we need to pick our heads up and continue to work hard. There are still more tournaments to qualify for. The World Cup. The Wafcon, to defend our title,” she added.

Banyana

Dejected South African players after their 0-0 draw against Nigeria in the Olympic qualifier. (Photo: Sydney Seshibedi / Gallo Images)

Massive disappointment

During their qualification journey for the 2020 Games in Tokyo, Banyana Banyana were ousted by neighbours Botswana in the second round of the qualifiers.

As a result they failed to build on the momentum of reaching their first Games in 2012, and their second participation at the multisport tournament in 2016.

After their ascendancy over the past couple of years, booking their ticket to Paris for the fast-approaching 2024 Olympics would have bolstered the legacy of this current Banyana Banyana cohort. Now they have to pick up the pieces and keep moving.           

“When the final whistle went, it was a huge disappointment. Heartache. This group has worked so hard to be where it is today,” Banyana captain Jane lamented.

“It’s been a long journey to get to where we are. And to get such a disappointment at the last hurdle is so hurtful. But we will lift our heads and we will try again. Like we’ve done before,” the 31-year-old midfielder said.

As for four-time African women’s coach of the year Ellis, sitting in the dugout as a head coach at the Olympics remains elusive. Though she was present in 2016, as an assistant to Vera Pauw. She took over as head coach not long after that tournament.

Asked how she feels about missing out on yet another Games as head coach and whether she still sees herself occupying the hot seat when the next opportunity to qualify for the Olympics arises, the 61-year-old said:

“It’s never about me. It’s always about the team first. That (qualifying for the Olympics) is one thing, as a group, we haven’t done… [On whether I’ll still be here when the next Olympics come around], I can’t give you an answer about that far ahead right now.”

Banyana

South Africa had high hopes of qualifying for the Olympics but a 0-0 draw against Nigeria was not enough. (Photo: Sydney Seshibedi / Gallo Images)

“It’s a big disappointment. Not just for us. But everyone involved in women’s football… It will take a while to recover from this,” Ellis added.

The coach, who cut an extremely frustrated and anxious figure with each passing minute of the second leg at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, said the general feeling from Banyana Banyana was that they had failed the nation by not booking their ticket to Paris.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: Banyana Banyana

“It’s difficult to explain [how we feel] because of the expectations that we have of ourselves, and the country has of us… We felt we disappointed everybody. We felt that if we had scored one goal, we might have scored a second or a third,” Ellis, a former Banyana Banyana captain, told journalists.

“I don’t think you can explain disappointment. It’s very difficult to explain. But you hurt so badly inside that you don’t know what to say.”

Africa’s pride

Had Banyana Banyana managed to navigate past the Nigerians in the fourth and final round of Olympic qualification for African nations, they would have been thrown into Group C.

This group has some heavyweights in global women’s soccer, including 2023 World Cup winners Spain, South American champions Brazil and Japan.

The Super Falcons of Nigeria, playing in their fifth Olympics and their first since Beijing in 2008, will have to work doubly hard to make it to the knockout stages of the 12-team tournament.

The 12 teams will be split into three groups of four. The top two from each group, along with the best two third-placed teams, will reach the knockout phase.

Zambia will be Africa’s other representative after they beat the more fancied Morocco 3-2 on aggregate to seal their spot in France. The Copper Queens are also in a daunting group. They are in Group B with the USA, Germany and 2023 World Cup semifinalists Australia.

South Africans will have no soccer team to follow at the Games. Along with Banyana Banyana’s failure to book a ticket to Paris, the men’s U23 side was not successful either in their mission to reach the prestigious tournament, having been eliminated by Congo-Brazzaville in 2023. DM

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