Banyana in World Cup: Joy, regret and some sadness ... but mainly joy
Celebrations as team seal an historic place at the World Cup in France, ending a 25-year wait
As the final whistle blew in Cape Coast on Tuesday night, Banyana Banyana captain Janine van Wyk fell to the floor and burst into tears. They were tears of joy, but mixed in there was palpable relief and perhaps some regret and sadness at past opportunities lost.
Banyana beat Mali 2-0 in their African Women’s Championship semifinal to seal an historic first-time place at the World Cup in France, ending a 25-year wait to sit at Fifa’s main table. They are into Saturday’s final against Nigeria, but in this moment nobody is thinking of that. The joy of having won a World Cup place, in the same country where Bafana Bafana debuted in 1998, is all-consuming.
To put into context why it matters so much, we have to take a few steps back. Banyana have been among Africa’s leading sides since they made their international debut in 1993, but despite playing at the last two Olympic Games, have suffered only heartbreak in World Cup qualification.
In 2011 they missed out to Equatorial Guinea’s mercenary footballers from Brazil, Europe and other parts of Africa, for which the Central African country was later punished by Fifa. In 2015 Banyana had an accomplished team that narrowly lost 2-1 to Nigeria in the semifinals, but were then given an opportunity to qualify when they faced less-fancied Ivory Coast in the third-place playoff. The South Africans battered their opponents but could not score and then conceded six minutes from time to finish fourth and outside the places for the World Cup in Canada.
I have interviewed many Banyana players from that game, and the coach Vera Pauw, and they all still battle to talk about it, such is the deep sense of disappointment. That will have been eroded to some extent by Tuesday’s triumph, but for many it will also be a reminder of time lost.
Competing at the World Cup is not just about being among the elite in the game – it affords exposure for SA players to teams and scouts who would never normally bother looking this far down in Africa. It tells the world that SA women’s football is on the rise, that we have a team worth keeping an eye on, and creates massive exposure for the women’s game in this country.
The doors it could potentially open for players who are never seen by clubs in Europe and North America are exciting. And make no mistake, there is enormous talent in SA. Pauw, when she took over at Houston Dash at the start of 2018, brought in Linda Motlhalo and Thembi Kgatlana to join Van Wyk, who had already spent a season there. A few people raised an eyebrow about why she would bring in these “unknowns” to the best league in the world, but by the end of the season all three had played a key role for the team, with the contracts of Motlahlo and Kgatlana extended.
A World Cup appearance could open the same doors for Refiloe Jane, already playing in Australia with Canberra United but ripe for a move to a bigger league, along with Lebogang Ramalepe, Mamello Makhabane, Nothando Vilakazi, Jermaine Seoposenwe, Amanda Mthandi and Leandra Smeda.
Some are already reaching, or are in, their 30s, so for them it is also last-chance saloon if they want to make it as a professional player overseas. It is that experience of playing abroad from the Dash trio and the likes of Smeda, who spent part of this year in the Uefa Women’s Champions League with Gintra Universitetas in Lithuania, that has bolstered the current side and it stands to reason that the more professional players, the better the side will become.
Credit must go to coach Des Ellis, a former captain of the side who knew only World Cup disappointment. A standout feature of the African Women’s Championship in Ghana has been how tactically disciplined and organised the team are and that is down to her plans. Mali barely had a sniff of goal in 90 minutes as Banyana easily kept them at arm’s length with smart play and hard work.
There have been no below-par performers in these continental finals. Kgatlana may get the credit for her five goals, but this team is so much more than that. The defensive organisation of Van Wyk, the ever willing and skillful fullbacks Vilakazi and Ramalepe, the steel in midfield from Smeda and Makhabane, the silky skills of the classy Motlhalo, the ingenuity of Jane, and the explosive pace of Kgatlana all make for a heady mix of power, finesse and skill.
This truly is a team for South Africans to be proud of. As they face their biggest test yet at the World Cup, each man and woman out there should be firmly behind them.