31 March 2004
South Africa’s women’s soccer team have come a long way since they were first assembled as a national squad in 1993. Banyana Banyana – “The Girls” – are now ranked second in Africa, pushed Nigeria to the brink at the 2003 All Africa Games, and came within one goal of qualifying for the 2004 Olympics.
At the 2003 All Africa Games in Nigeria, they defeated the much-fancied Cameroon side to reach the finals, where they faced Nigeria’s Super Falcons, the undisputed women’s soccer champions on the continent.
Banyana lost 1-0 – the winner eventually coming four minutes from time – a huge improvement over their previous match-ups, in which the Nigerians had humiliated the South Africans by wide margins.
The SA women’s league
Women in South Africa have been playing club soccer for decades, albeit on a disjointed and local basis. There are currently more than 300 women’s soccer clubs in the SA Football Association’s (Safa’s) 25 regions, with a pool of about 50 000 players.
However, the Western and Eastern Cape and parts of Gauteng have better organised leagues and clubs that play regularly, and the core of the Banyana team is drawn from these three regions.
The Safa/Sanlam National Women’s League was launched in 2001 and involves the 300 women’s club sides from all Safa regions. Each region fields a minimum of eight teams who play against each other on a home-and-away basis. The nine provincial winners contest a national tournament to decide the national women’s club champion.
Although the women’s league is not yet a professional one, the talent and enthusiasm of the club players makes for a strong pool from which the national side can draw. Banyana’s first captain, Desiree Ellis, said of the earlier days of the squad: “I often told the other Banyana players that we are playing for fame and not for fortune.”
The worst defeat ever suffered by coach Gregory Mashilo’s side was on the recent tour of China, where Banyana played two games against China to prepare for the All Africa Games. They conceded 21 goals in two matches, losing 8-0 in the first and 13-0 in the second.
Mashilo said the tour was an eye-opener. “It is water under the bridge now. I identified our weaknesses. We need to re-group and focus.”
Regional champs, Africa’s second
Banyana have played a series of friendly games and competitions since they were established. In southern Africa, the only tough opponents for the South Africans have been Zimbabwe and Zambia, although Banyana have come out winners against both in a number of encounters.
But Banyana have come unstuck on a number of occasions against Nigeria’s tough-as-teak Falcons. Other tough opponents for Banyana have been international opponents and West and North African squads, including Ghana and Morocco.
Banyana easily won the inaugural Cosafa Women’s Tournament in April 2002 when they defeated hosts Zimbabwe in the finals. The tournament featured 10 teams from southern Africa, with hosts Zimbabwe allowed to fields two teams for the event.
On their way to the finals, Banyana walloped Botswana (14-0), Mozambique (13-0), Zambia (3-1) and Swaziland (4-0) in their group matches.
Banyana were not intimidated by a partisan 35 000-strong crowd at the Rufaro Stadium in Harare as they beat the Zimbabweans 2-1 to lift the southern African women’s cup.
Veronica Phewa, who plays for a KwaZulu-Natal women’s club, and Portia Modise of Soweto Ladies, have an insatiable appetite at scoring goals. Phewa scored 17 times in five games during the tournament in Zimbabwe.
International talent scouts have been watching the exploits of Banyana’s players; four players – Modise, Phewa, Mpumi Nyandeni and Antonio Carelse – were invited to the UK for trials with English Premiership side Arsenal in 2003.
During their stay they played in three friendly matches. Phewa scored five goals against a touring Japanese side, while Modise scored two goals.
Road to Athens 2004
Bafana narrowly lost out to Nigeria in the race to be Africa’s sole representative in women’s soccer at the Athens Olympics.
In their first Olympic qualifier in October 2003, Banyana walloped Namibia 13-0 in the first leg, then went on to beat them 8-0 in front of their home crowd in Windhoek in November.
In their second qualifier, they beat Angola 8-5 on aggregate, a 6-2 home win in Johannesburg in February making up for their 2-3 loss in Luanda in January.
In the final qualifying matches, played in March, Banyana drew 2-all with Nigeria in Pretoria before losing 1-0 in Abuja, giving the Nigerians a 3-2 aggregate win.
Banyana pushed the Super Falcons close, however, despite going into the match with a side weakened by a serious bout of food poisoning – and further weakened in the 63rd minute when Martha Malaku was sent off for tripping a goal-bound Stella Mbachu.
That’s as close as any South African soccer team has ever come to beating a side from Africa’s top footballing nation. Now, finally, maybe, South African supporters will start to give the women’s game the respect it deserves.