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Banyana Banyana’s draw for next year’s World Cup in Australasia is tough but the good news is that it could have been a lot worse.

The African champions have been grouped alongside heavyweights Sweden with Italy, a team not quite among Europe’s elite, and Argentina who are still some way behind Brazil, South America’s leading team.

The South Africans, who will make a second consecutive appearance at the World Cup, open their campaign against Sweden, ranked second behind world champions US, on July 23 at the Wellington Regional Stadium.

“I think all the groups are tough, but it is a reasonable draw,” said Banyana coach Desiree Ellis shortly after Saturday’s draw in Auckland.

“We have played against Sweden before but we have not played Italy and Argentina. It could have been a tougher one, so we are happy with it.”

Indeed, Banyana know Sweden very well having already played the 2019 World Cup bronze medallists three more times since their 4-1 defeat at the London Olympics in 2012.

They met again at the Rio Olympics four years later when the Scandinavians edged a much closer contest 1-0. In two subsequent friendlies played in SA the Swedes won 3-0 in 2018 while Ellis’s side held the visitors to a goalless draw in the Albertina Sisulu Challenge at the Cape Town Stadium in January 2019.

Ensure qualification

The Swedes, who have been to every World Cup since the tournament started as a 12-nation event in China in 1991, have a rich pedigree in the women’s game. The Group G favourites were runner’s-up in 2003, third-placed finishers in 2019, inaugural European champions in 1984 and silver medallists at the last two Olympic Games which, in the women’s game, is similar in stature to the World Cup.

Italy, ranked 14th in the world, will fancy themselves to take the second spot in the group that will ensure qualification for the knockout stages. Le Azzurre, who will be playing at their fourth World Cup, reached the quarterfinals in 1991 and 2019. Runners-up in the European Championships in 1993 and 1997, they didn’t fare too well in their last two continental competitions as they failed to progress beyond the group stages in 2017 and 2022. 

Banyana’s best chance of a win probably lies in their second group clash, with Argentina on July 28 at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin, home of top rugby side the Highlanders.

La Albiceleste, ranked 29th in the world, are still winless after three previous World Cup appearances. They did manage to secure creditable draws against Japan and Scotland four years ago and went down narrowly 1-0 to England, who were crowned European champions at end-July.

After the huge success of the 2019 tournament in France, the ninth edition of the Women’s World Cup has been expanded from 24 to 32 teams with only the top two finishers in the eight groups progressing to the second round. In the absence of a lucky loser option route to the second round as one of the best third-placed finishers, Banyana will have to produce a few shocks to book a place in the last 16.

Group stages

A more realistic aim will surely be to secure their first win at the World Cup, after losing all three of their games four years ago in France. To put the performances of SA teams at their respective World Cups into perspective, only once in 12 previous appearances has one of our national teams managed to make it beyond the group stages. 

In the previous World Cup appearances made by the national men’s senior team (three times), the Under-20s (four times) and the Under-17s (once), with women’s senior team (once) and the Under 17s (twice), it was only Ramahlwe Mphahlele’s  Under-20 side of 2009 that has been able to progress beyond the group stages.

The main priority between now and  July 23 next year when Banyana face Sweden will be for Safa to ensure the team has the best possible preparations for the tournament. This will include scouting the opposition, optimum physical and mental preparation and arranging friendlies against appropriate high-profile opponents.

The team has already been given a serious reality check in their most recent friendlies against Brazil and Australia.

The Selecao trounced Banyana 3-0 and 6-0 in September, while the Matildas cruised to a comfortable a 4-1 win in London three weeks ago. While some fans have been critical of the team’s performances and even questioned the choice of high-quality opponents, it’s only by playing top-ranked teams that the players will realise the level of competition they will be facing at the World Cup.

Besides the few overseas-based players such as Thembi Kgatlana, Jermaine Seoposenwe, Refiloe Jane, Hildah Magaia and Linda Motlhalo, most of the Banyana squad are amateurs, so it’s hardly fair to expect them to compete on a level playing field against the full-time professionals of the top nations.

A maiden victory at the World Cup for Banyana will be a huge achievement; progressing to the second round will be akin to any of the other favoured nations lifting the trophy. With the right preparation and mindset, hope springs eternal.

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