Lebohang Ramalepe of South Africa poses for a portrait during the official FIFA Women's World Cup 2019 portrait session at Royal Barriere Hotel on June 05, 2019 in Le Havre, France. Picture: ADAM PRETTY / FIFA / GETTY IMAGES
Lebohang Ramalepe of South Africa poses for a portrait during the official FIFA Women's World Cup 2019 portrait session at Royal Barriere Hotel on June 05, 2019 in Le Havre, France. Picture: ADAM PRETTY / FIFA / GETTY IMAGES

SA open their Fifa Women’s World Cup campaign against Spain in Le Havre on Saturday with nerves‚ excitement and some trepidation ahead of what will be a long-awaited debut on the greatest stage in women’s football.

It has been a journey of 26 years to get to this point from the first international played by the side in 1993 to finally taking their place among the world’s elite. Some of the cast remain the same‚ Desiree Ellis was captain of that first Banyana Banyana side‚ and now she leads the team as coach.

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Ellis has spoken much of the anxiety the team is feeling‚ and how they cannot wait for the football to begin. That they face  daunting opposition in their group is no understatement‚ but the only way they can tackle what is before them is to embrace the challenge and face it head on.

“I’m nervous because looking back to the day we qualified for the World Cup [at the Africa Women’s Championship]‚ and now it is two days to go‚” Banyana vice-captain Lebo Ramalepe said.

“I never thought we would reach this point and this is it‚ we have to do it now. Everyone in the team is ready for the game on Saturday.”

The buildup has been difficult for the side‚ perhaps a portent of what lies ahead‚ culminating in last Sunday’s 7-2 defeat to Norway in which they were 5-0 down at the break.

“It was kind of embarrassing. We as players want to do better‚” Ramalepe said‚ believing that performance was a one-off. “I think we will do much better on Saturday than many people expect. We are doing it for ourselves and the country.”

Banyana are winless in their last 10 internationals‚ though they have played some top teams in that run — world No1 the US‚ Sweden‚ Netherlands and Nigeria.

Saturday’s game against Spain will set the tone. A positive result and all things are possible‚ but a heavy defeat and they will be on the back foot.

“Any time you play a first game in a tournament‚ it is like a final match‚” she said. “You have to collect points‚ and both teams will be desperate for the three points. We really want it. I believe we will come out with a positive response.”

For Ramalepe and many of her teammates it has been a hard slog to reach the World Cup. Unlike their male counterparts‚ most in the squad play for the love of the game rather than remuneration‚ and that comes with its own challenges.

“It’s not easy to be here‚ you have put in a lot of sacrifice and go through a lot of obstacles‚” Ramalepe said.

As for how far they can go in a group that includes top side China and world No2 Germany‚ she says they just want to represent the country with pride and show SA football is on the rise.

“It is our first World Cup. We must ensure no-one will forget the performance we give in each and every game,” she said. “That is what we want to achieve as a team. If‚ at the end of the tournament‚ people are talking about how Banyana Banyana were here‚ that would be good tournament for us.”