subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now
Banyana Banyana coach Desiree Ellis in Durban, September 5 2022. Picture: DARREN STEWART/GALLO IMAGES
Banyana Banyana coach Desiree Ellis in Durban, September 5 2022. Picture: DARREN STEWART/GALLO IMAGES

There is a reason every footballer — and most fans too, before they realise they do not have the talent — dreams of playing at the World Cup.

It is more than just the myth established from glory earned by players and teams in the epic clashes of past editions. It is how damn tough it is — the level of competition.

Yes, in club football, especially in the men’s game, the Uefa Champions League, given the talent assembled at ever richer European teams who accumulate the globe’s best footballers, has perhaps surpassed the level of competitiveness of a World Cup. But that 32-team event — 48 for the men from 2026 — remains comparable as the ultimate test in football, and, given how the game dwarfs others in numbers, perhaps in sport.

It is why you can see the pride and determination to make a mark etched on the face of every Banyana Banyana player in New Zealand.

The expressions were different at their debut in France four years ago. They had the look of babes in the wood then because that’s what they were.

This Banyana have the steely glare of experienced international players; African champions who ply their trade globally, fixated on the prize of going better than losing all three group games in 2019, of matching some of the best, and reaching the knockout phase. It was the same determined — in that case, also angry — glare that faced down the SA Football Association as the team stuck to their guns in a contract and treatment dispute before leaving for Australasia.

That is the toughness of a World Cup, too. Even with that glare they may not get to where they want to be. In fact, as the lowest-ranked team in group G, even if the stare and steel almost matched third-ranked Sweden’s natural confidence — gained from so many campaigns at this level — in Sunday’s 2-1 defeat in Wellington, SA should not get there.

The women’s game continues to close the gap on men’s football in many aspects on and off the field — including how in each World Cup the minnows come closer to the giants.

Banyana showed against Sweden, who needed a last-gasp winner, they can compete at this level on a far more equal footing than four years ago. They looked worthy African champions with a start that was the best from the continent’s competitors, as Zambia and Morocco suffered thrashings and Nigeria drew with Canada.

It was a performance that raised hopes the South Africans can get results in the supposedly easier games against 28th-ranked Argentina and 16th-ranked Italy, and even reach the knockouts. It may not be so simple.

The performance may have been promising, but the result was still a defeat. Even a loss against the best side in the opening match puts the underdog team in a group under pressure. So, the matches against Argentina and Italy become harder than the rankings suggest. And as good as SA were against Sweden, there were flaws that their opponents would have studied.

But these flaws can be corrected. Coach Desiree Ellis deserves all the praise she has received for winning the 2022 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations, reaching a second successive World Cup and improving Banyana’s general competitiveness. She appears to have forged a tight-knit unit capable of hitting teams on the counterattack with pacy runners. That was what troubled Sweden so greatly.

Ellis has also had question marks over here selections of favourites. No-one except the coach can know if that was why she picked Kaylin Swart in goal ahead of Nations Cup hero Andile Dlamini, and two short centrebacks while veretan Noko Matlou sat out. They seemed costly decisions.

Ellis said Swart’s better distribution was the reason she got the nod, as the coach did not want SA sitting back against the dangerously clinical Swedes. Swart’s greater height might also have got her the nod, in a department where the Scandinavians had the clear advantage.

Neither argument panned out. Swart barely made a punch or catch to Sweden’s 13 corners swung dangerously close to goal — where keepers should be intercepting at least 40% of the deliveries. Dlamini is the more capable keeper and seems likely to have done better at that.

That Sweden only scored from one of their corners was more down to Swart and her short back four riding their luck. Forward Jermaine Seoposenwe was brought back as a tall player to try to defend the corners, which limited her attacking role.

The one corner Sweden finally scored from was the decisive one — Amanda Ilestedt’s 90th-minute winner.

Also, kicking the ball out of goal rather than playing it against such a tall team was a route to giving away possession.

It also seemed to contradict Ellis’ reasoning for playing short Bongeka Gamede and Bambanani Mbane at centreback, who could not cope with Ilestedt and co at set pieces. The coach said this was because she wanted her team to play out of defence. Yet big, veteran Matlou is a former striker and comfortable on the ball, and her physical attributes were surely missed.

It might seem like nitpicking after such a brave performance, and given the solid gameplan and structure in a good display, to raise those two seemingly strange selections. But if there is a feeling among the players that they might have been decisive, and cost them a draw that would have seen SA in a far stronger position to progress, it could affect the morale of a team skirting a fine line between despondency and motivation from the haphazard nature of their departure.

It needs to be better against Argentina. The overwhelming sense from what they managed against Sweden was this national team are bristling with big ambitions at this World Cup. They just need top be correctly unleashed to achieve them.

subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.